Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When You Fast...

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Isaiah 58:1-9a and Mark 1:9-15:

Today we begin a new sermon series which will take us through the season of Lent in which we are going to be looking at spiritual disciplines.  We are only going to be looking at five of all of the spiritual disciplines, but all of these practices’ purposes are to help us strengthen our faith and to deepen our relationship with God.  But, a caution to always keep in mind is that many of them, or maybe even all of them, can be practiced without putting God first, of merely being an outward sign without signifying any inward change, which is why God is chastising the Israelites in the passage we just heard from Isaiah.  One of idea to keep in mind is about the word discipline.  Most of us don’t really like the word discipline, even if it has the word spiritual in front of it, or maybe especially if it has the word spiritual in front of it.  When we hear the word discipline what do we normally think of? (punishment…)   While that is certainly part of the meaning of the word, there is more to it than that.  There is an area of knowledge, especially in higher education, so I could say that theology is one of the oldest disciplines and then there is activities or exercises done, usually following a set of rules, that allow us to increase our skill in something, which is more the discipline we are thinking of here.  That’s what athletes do when they begin practicing.

If you want to become a world class athlete, you can’t just practice your craft for 20 minutes every other day or so.  It has to be something which you do for long periods of time every day, which means you have to choose what other things you are going to eliminate from your life and you take on the discipline in your life of doing what is necessary in order to reach your goal or to attain a certain level of mastery in what you are doing.  So what the spiritual disciplines do is very similar.  They are a set of practices to help us achieve our goal, and hopefully we have such a goal, of deepening our faith, of becoming better in what we do and what we know about our faith, and most importantly of coming into better communion with God.  And so today we begin with our first spiritual discipline and it is the one that most people think of for Lent and that is fasting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Transfiguration: Light in the Darkness

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9:

One of the conversations that are routinely held amongst clergy, although not really shared amongst those outside, is the difficulty we encounter in talking about the same stories over and over again, especially for those stories that occur every year like Christmas and Easter, and we wonder how we are going to find something new to say about them.  And then there are others, like the story of the transfiguration, a story which we encounter every year on the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, first with the party we know as Mardi Gras and then Ash Wednesday, that cause us the same anxiety, although as we can tell we don’t get the same turn out for this story as we do at Easter and Christmas, but that doesn’t make it easier to come up with something new to say.  And I know your hearts are breaking for me, complaining about the preparation I have to do when I only work one day a week.

But in addition to today’s story, today is also the one year anniversary of the death of my 9-year-old nephew Wyatt.  In some ways it seems like so much longer than a year and in some ways it seems so much shorter than a year.  Some of you remember that time, and we thank you for your help getting us through it, and for those who weren’t here yet, Wyatt went into the emergency room with a severe headache and, according to his doctors, in a perfect storm of problems, died a week later when a blood clot in his brain caused swelling in his brain that couldn’t be controlled, taking his life.  Yet, there is a link to that tragedy and the story of Jesus’ transfiguration as well as Paul’s statement which today comes from his second letter to the Corinthians.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Evangelism: Preach It

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Mark 1:29-39  and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23:

Normally when we think of someone spreading the gospel message, of doing the dreaded word evangelism, there are several images that pop into our heads, or at least pop into my head.  The first is of someone, nearly always a stranger, who walks up to us carrying their Bible and saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”  And the second is either of Jehovah’s witnesses or Mormon’s coming to know on your door.  Recently, Linda and I were in our front yard and two Mormon’s came by, and I told them that I was a minister, and so they said something along the lines that I was clearly devoted to my faith and they just like to talk theology with people, to which I responded, “No, you really don’t.”  These are people that most of us don’t want to have to talk to or with which we want to deal.  We want them to go their way and leave us alone, and we definitely don’t want to be the people that others think of doing the same thing.
Even though on its face it the passage we just heard doesn’t seem like it is related to the passage from last week in which Paul was talking about the incredibly fascinating subject of meat that was sacrificed to idols and the idea of community, but it is a continuation of that idea, because of what Paul says that he is willing to do in order not only to be a part of a community of believers, but also what he believes that it means to be a follower of Christ.  One of the crucial things that is happening in this passage, and was also the case in the passage we heard last week, which are the verses before these, is that while Paul is certainly telling the Corinthians what they should do, it is not as orders, but instead by instruction because it is what Paul himself is either doing or would be willing to do or not do.  Because what we heard last week was that if eat meat sacrificed to idols would cause someone else to fall, then Paul himself would not eat that meat.  And then today he says that in order to reach others, that he is willing to become like a Jew for the Jews, like one outside the law for those outside the law, which would be gentiles, and to become like the weak, which is how he describes those who don’t eat meat because it has been sacrificed to idols, so that he might win the weak.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Naming It

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passages were 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1:21-28:

Several weeks ago as I was looking at the upcoming scripture readings, I was a little surprised to see today’s gospel passage; because I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t remember this story.  I certainly remember different times in which Jesus cast a demon outside of someone, although we shouldn’t think of this like the exorcist, this is not Linda Blair with her head spinning around, but I didn’t remember Jesus ever casting out a demon in a synagogue.  There is a duplicate of this story in the gospel of Luke, but as far as I can tell in my research this is the only time in the gospels that something like this happens within the walls of the synagogue, or for our purposes within the walls of the church.  And, I think there is something significant about this because it means that there is evil even inside the church, or at the very least there are disruptions and behaviors inappropriate enough that Jesus feels that he needs to call them out, and that is not something we are really good at addressing or talking about.  Some of it is because we are not good at naming evil, or at least naming it appropriately.

We could probably all agree that Hitler and Stalin were evil, but then that attribute gets applied to others.  It wouldn’t take much to find people comparing President Obama to Hitler or Speaker of the House John Boehner to Stalin, well maybe not so much for Speaker Boehner.  But we’ve sort of come to believe that if we disagree with someone that first of all that must make them wrong, and second it must make them evil.  How did we get to that point?  I use those two names because over the past two weeks I have been called both of those things by someone who is disgruntled with me, although since I started out as Hitler and then became Staling I’m not sure if I’m moving up or down the scale of evilness.  But how do we deal with things like this is the church?  How do we deal with people who disagree with us? How do we deal with things with which we disagree in the church?  Can we name them? Can we call out wolves in sheep’s clothing?  And how do we make such decisions and distinctions? Can we make those distinctions?  And if we do, how do we know that we are right and not just overreacting?  And do we respond to with hatred and loathing or do we respond to it with love and compassion?  What role do individual desires, beliefs and opinions have in and against those of the community?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Gategate

Recently our dog got out because someone left the side gate at the house open.  We, of course, hired an independent counsel to do a full investigation to make sure we found out exactly who did it so proper blame could be assigned and we could all feel better about ourselves, even if we did nothing to make sure it didn't happen again.  And, since it seems we had to, we added "gate" to the end of the name to make sure everyone understood the seriousness of the situation.

Obviously this is a little satirical, although not the part about the dog getting out, but can we stop making everything the equivalent of Watergate, especially adding "gate" to everything?  And how did that become the standard, or the name, by which everything was set?  Why don't we name things after abscam, or even better the Tea Pot Dome Scandal?

I understand that "deflategate" sounds better than "deflatescam" or "deflatedome" but it's a little tiresome.  It's time for the news media to begin to be a little more creative or at least more intelligent about things.  I also can't help but think that a lot of this has more to do with who did it then what was done, especially since most of the media have disdain for Bill Belichick because he has, seemingly, such disdain for them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

God's Call: Are You Serious?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Mark 1:14-20 and Jonah 3:1-5, 10:

I like Jonah.  I like Jonah a lot, because Jonah is a lot like me, and I suspect that Jonah is a lot like some of you as well.  We really have two different call stories in the passages we heard this morning.  The first is the call story of the first disciples.  Jesus has heard that John the Baptist has just been arrested, which is the event which kicks off his ministry, and so he goes to Galilee and proclaims first a call for repentance, and then the reason, because the kingdom of God has come near.  And immediately, those are Mark’s words, a word he uses a lot in his gospel, Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee and calls Peter and James and John and Simon to come and follow him, and they get up and go.  They leave their nets and their boats and their family behind, and they follow Jesus, immediately.  And then there is Jonah.

The passage we heard from Jonah is actually already in the middle of the story, that is why it says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.  Now many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story of Jonah, if for nothing else then being Jonah and the whale, although there is actually no whale in the story.  It’s a whale of a story, but there is no whale in the story.  But I want to remind us all of the Jonah story so that we can know what’s going on in the passage we heard and also to then compare and contrast it against the call story found in Mark.

Jonah is a prophet, and his story is found in the Hebrew Scriptures amongst the prophets, but the book is very different than other prophetic writings, because it isn’t a series of prophetic statements.  Instead it is a narrative about Jonah and his dealings with God, much more like what we are used to seeing in the Genesis stories, or in some of the later histories, like the stories found in kings or Samuel.  But Jonah is living in Israel when God calls him and tells him to go “at once” to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness.  Now the city of Nineveh is said to be a great city, and a very large city, that it would take 3 days to walk across, which means that it’s about 60 miles in diameter.  Nineveh is also not a Jewish city as it’s located in modern day Iraq and is known as the city of Mosul.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Assumptions

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 1:43-51:

Today’s message is going to be very different from how I normally preach, because it’s going to be focused on four stories, and it’s also a little more personal than I normally like to be because these are also my stories.  But this message has been sort of bouncing around my mind for a while now, and I thought today was an appropriate time to say it.

The first two stories are about perceptions, or we should probably say assumptions.  When I was attending Harvard, I had to go to the cashier’s office one day and there was a long line waiting to talk with someone, and in front of me there was a very large man.  He was probably 6’4” and at least 250.  His neck was bigger than my thighs.  He was huge.  Now Harvard does not offer any athletic scholarships, nor do any of the other Ivy Leagues, although they still do quite well, including being undefeated in football this year and beating UNM in the NCAA tournament two years ago.  But that’s just bragging, but anyways this guy was huge and I instantly thought, I wonder if Harvard lowers its academic requirements in order to recruit and bring in some athletes to play for the school?  Does anyone want to make a guess as to the race of this particular student?  He was African-American.  The moment I asked myself the question I realized the outright bigotry that went into it, the assumptions that I had made, not only about him but about others like him.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bad Sportsmanship in "Urban" Areas

Congratulations to the Ohio State Buckeyes for winning the national championship last night.  They totally dominated the game, and you have to to overcome 4 turnovers.  The over/under on Ezekiel Elliott was 165 1/2 yards rushing.  I said before the game that if he hit the over that Oregon would lose, and of course he went way over.

On the same note, that was not the Oregon team I saw play most of the season.  How much of that difference was Ohio State and how much was them simply having lost too many players to injury and suspension?  Totally unknown, but the better team on the field last night won the game.  (Although it certainly looked to me like Oregon hadn't done any tackling since the Rose Bowl, because they forgot how to even attempt to do it properly, and that was not them at all.)

Urban Meyer has certainly proven that he is one of the best coaches in college football right now.  If he is not the best, he is certainly right there in the conversation.  Going into the game many commentators said they were picking Ohio State simply because of Urban, not because they thought they were the better team, but that because he would do what was necessary to win.  I think that was apparent, and he certainly earned a lot of respect from me, until the end.

Late in the game, Oregon went for it on 4th down, because they had to, and didn't complete it, giving the ball to Ohio State around the 14 yard line with what I think was a little more than 3 minutes to go. I really wondered what they were going to do, and the play calls sent in seemed to indicate that Urban was simply going to run down the clock, get a first down, and then sit in a victory formation. Because either Oregon's defense got incredibly stout all of the sudden, or Ohio State wasn't trying very hard to score.  They then got their first down, and all they had to do was kneel down a couple of times and the game was theirs.

But that is not what they did.  Instead they kept running the ball, scoring with only a few seconds left on the clock.  I won't write what I actually said, but it was bush-league and totally bad sportsmanship. The only thing scoring there did was to drive up the margin of victory, which didn't matter.  They were already up by 15.  If this were the NFL, you might see them do it because the NFL is about money and entertainment, so what they can do different things.  But let's be honest and say that they don't even do that in the NFL (unless the coach hates the other coach. I'm looking at you Bill Belichick).

But this isn't the NFL, and college football is supposed to be teaching these athletes something, it's that whole student/athlete thing, and one of those things should be sportsmanship. Urban Meyer had that opportunity last night to send that message and he failed the test.  He, in fact, failed miserably.

In 2010, Wisconsin was playing a game in which they were leading 20-19 and driving the ball as time was expiring.  They got inside the 10 yard line and then assumed the victory formation and they won the game. They could have scored and increased the margin of victory, but they didn't, and they still won. That is good sportsmanship.  What Urban Meyer did was not, and I have yet to hear a single commentator call him out for it which is also a travesty.

I congratulate the team for their victory, but I have lost all respect for Urban Meyer because he is not coaching or teaching his players, and those who play who watch, the proper respect for the game and his opponents.  He also needs to be careful because, as Gregg Easterbrook says, when you taunt the football gods, bad things tend to happen.

Update: Shout-out to Tony Kornhesier who is the only commentator I have heard who called out Urban Meyer for this, and Michael Wilbon, agreeing with him, said that if he did that in the NFL "he would get one of his players killed."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Books Of 2014

These are the books I read in 2014.
  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  2. A Redbird Christmas by Fanny Flagg
  3. A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
  4. Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond
  5. Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill et al.
  6. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
  7. Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom S. Rainer
  8. Basilica: The Splendor and Scandal of Building St. Peter's by R.A. Scotti
  9. Becoming Mr. October by Reggie Jackson and Kevin Baker
  10. Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of Forgiveness Instinct by Michael McCullough
  11. Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era by Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts
  12. Boys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They can Look Up Your Skirt) by Philip Van Munching
  13. Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1938 Olympics by Daniel James Brown
  14. Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman by Lee Lowenfish
  15. Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing by Norm Stamper
  16. Breakpoint by Richard Clarke
  17. By Sorrow's River by Larry McMurtry
  18. Censuring Queen Victoria: A Story of Royal Correspondence and the Creation of the Icon by Yvonne Young
  19. Conservatives Without Conscience by John Dean
  20. Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most by Marcus Borg
  21. Cubed: A History of the Office by Nikil Saval
  22. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
  23. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  24. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World
  25. Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil and other First World Problems by David Rakoff
  26. Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History of Jorge Ramos
  27. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
  28. Experiencing Forgiveness by Charles Stanley
  29. Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase
  30. Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Robert Schnase
  31. Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy by Sudhir Venkatesh
  32. Folly and Glory by Larry McMurtry
  33. Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin
  34. Forgive for Love by Dr. Fred Luskin
  35. Forgiveness is a Choice by Robert D. Enirght
  36. Forgiveness: Finding Peace through Letting Go by Adam Hamilton
  37. Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone
  38. Frank Lloyd Wright and His Manner of Thought by Jerome Klinkowitz
  39. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff
  40. Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler
  41. Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom
  42. I Am a Church Member by Thom S. Rainer
  43. I Don't Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever by Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster
  44. I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church by Paul Nixon
  45. I Refuse to Preach a Boring Sermon by Karyn L. Wiseman
  46. In One Person: A Novel by John Irving
  47. Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
  48. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester
  49. Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis
  50. Lincoln Letter by William Martin
  51. Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
  52. Making Sense of the Bible: Recovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton
  53. Mickie and Willie, Mantle and Mays: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age by Allen Barra
  54. My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach
  55. New Mexico Baseball : Miners, Outlaws, Indians, and Isotopes, 1880 to the Present by L. M. Sutter.
  56. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  57. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
  58. Partners in Prayer by John Maxwell
  59. Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend by Mitchell Zuckoff
  60. Relaunch: How to Stage an Organizational Comeback by Dr. Mark Rutland
  61. Revelation: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels
  62. Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World by Ronald J. Sider
  63. Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
  64. Sin Killer by Larry McMurtry
  65. Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile by Nate Jackson
  66. Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
  67. Tatooine Ghost by Troy Denning
  68. The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester
  69. The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story by Lily Koppel
  70. The Chalmers Race; Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession by Rick Huhn
  71. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
  72. The Deadliest Cast Member by Kelly Ryan Johns
  73. The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II by Gregory Freeman
  74. The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea by Gregory Freeman
  75. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
  76. The Inner Circle by T. Coraghessan Boyle
  77. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick
  78. The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth about Junia by Rena Pederson
  79. The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester
  80. The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind
  81. The Planets by David Sobel
  82. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
  83. The Reappearing Act by Kate Fagan
  84. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's so Good about the Good News by Peter Gomes
  85. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Performance by David Epstein
  86. The Wandering Hill by Larry McMurtry
  87. The Way of Forgiveness: Letting Go, Easing Stress and Building Strength by D. Patrick Miller
  88. Tomorrow-land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirella
  89. Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and other Phenomenon from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory by Stacy Horn
  90. Unconditional Forgiveness by Mary Hayes-Grieco
  91. Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2014 by Bob Sehlinger, Seth Kubersky and Len Testa
  92. Way of Forgiveness: Letting Go, Easing Stress and Building Strength by D. Patrick Miller
  93. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blue Christmas: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Here is my sermon for our Blue Christmas service:

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you "Be of good cheer"
It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Except for many of us it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.  People may indeed be telling us to be of good cheer, but let’s be honest and say that we want to smack some of them upside the head, because we can’t.  and how could we be?  The season is not made for those who mourn, those in pain, those suffering loss, those who have no idea what the future will hold.  Everything around us is telling us that we should be joyful and cheerful about how wonderful the season is, how marvelous  the lights and the decorations are, and that if we would only try, if only we would make an effort, that by focusing on the other stuff we could forget everything else we are going through.  We should focus on having a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but how can we when merry and happy might not even be part of our vocabulary?  And let’s be honest that in this moment, it is not the most wonderful time of the year.

Ghost of Christmas Future

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 1:39-55:

For the past two weeks we have been looking at Christmas through a lens provided for us by Charles Dickens in his classic story A Christmas Carol.  In the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, who approaches Christmas, and really everything in his life by exclaiming famously “bah humbug”, is visited by four ghosts.  The first is the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley, who is forced to carry the chains of his misdeeds in his life around with him for all of eternity.  Marley comes to warn Scrooge that his fate will be the same unless Scrooge makes changes and that he should heed what the ghosts who come to visit have to show him.

The first ghost is the ghost of Christmas past who helps Scrooge to remember a different time in his life when he didn’t approach everything as simply an economic exercise in which to make, or save, as much money as possible and when he approached life with excitement and verve.  He is also shown the process by which he had become the man he is so that he would understand what changes could be made so that he could become someone different and not face the same fate as Marley.  It was important for him to understand that who he was, was not who he had to be, that he could make other decisions in his life that the past neither determined the present nor the future.

The second, the ghost of Christmas present, showed us the hyper-consumption and consumerism that affects how we celebrate Christmas today.  And we highlighted the fact that most of us want Christmas to mean more for us and we worry that we have gotten caught up in everything else and have forgotten the reason for the season, but because we can’t quite figure out how to make our celebrations more meaningful we focus on trying to make society’s celebrations more Christian in order to compensate.  And so we begin focusing on things which, I believe, distract us and distance us from truly understanding what the birth of Christ means for the world.  Everyday more than 20,000 children around the world will die as a result of malnutrition, war and water-borne illnesses, problems, most of which, could be solved with a fraction of what we spend on Christmas every year?  And so we heard Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and it is upon us as well, to proclaim the good news to the world, and I posed two questions for us to ponder, and those where what would we gain if we stopped celebrating Christmas and what would we lose if we stopped celebrating Christmas.  The answer to those questions, I suggested, would help us to realize what was truly important in our own Christmas celebrations which could lead us to potentially celebrating Christmas differently this year and creating new traditions for the future.  And that leads us to the last ghost, the ghost of Christmas future, or as Dickens says, the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Present

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:14-21:

Okay, we’re going to start with a trivia question.  We’re talking about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so does anyone know the Christmas carol that is sung in the story? It’s God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.  But we have begun using Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas as a lens through which to view our journey through Advent to Christmas.  Last week we looked at the Ghost of Christmas Past who takes Scrooge, appropriately enough, into the past to see a different vision of Christmas, a time in which he enjoyed the season and all that it brought, and we saw that the past does not determine the future, that the present and the future can also be changed, if we are willing to change.    Much of what we know as the “traditions” of Christmas were invented fairly recently, and that includes the laments about what Christmas has become and the cry to try and practice Christmas differently.
The next ghost that Scrooge encounters is that of Christmas present.  If you’ve ever read A Christmas Carol or seen a movie version, you may remember that the ghost of Christmas present is a large jovial fellow who is surrounded by piles of food and signs of abundance.  Even the ghost’s lamp is in the shape of a horn of plenty or a cornucopia.  If Dickens were to write the story today, this ghost may stay the same because he can be the symbol of the over-consumption which is so prevalent in Christmas present, but there is also a warning in this ghost’s visage.  Because even though he is jolly and laughing and surrounded by abundance, we are told that around his waist “is an antique scabbard, but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”  Reminiscent of Jesus’ injunction not to put up our treasure where moth and rust will consume and where thieves can break in and steal, but instead to put our treasure in heaven.  And then Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  And I think it’s critical to note that Jesus does not say where our heart is that’s where our treasure is, but instead that what we treasure is where our heart will follow, that our treasure doesn’t follow our heart, but instead that our heart follows our treasure.  Definitely something to keep in mind this Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Past

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 1:1-8:

I want you to think of one of your favorite Christmas memories?  I’m willing to bet that most of them do not involve a gift you received or even a gift you gave?  This is going to be true even if you are thinking of childhood memories.  Sure there may have been a bike, or some other special gift that really stood out, but most of our favorite memories of Christmas are about experiences we had, of time spent with family and friends, maybe it’s decorating the tree, or eating the meal, or a special visit to Santa, we might remember opening presents when we were a children, but not actually remember most of the presents themselves, even for the most recent Christmas.  Could you name 5-10 presents you received last year?  I’ve had awhile to think about it, and I couldn’t do it, and I can only remember what the girls got because I looked at the pictures.    And yet, even though we can’t remember the gifts we receive, even though most of our best Christmas memories have nothing to do with gifts given or received, we are constantly told that Christmas is all about gift giving, that it’s about going to the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t be happy this Christmas, will think that we don’t really love them, and our children will grow up and turn into old scrooges, they’ll end up in counseling blaming us for their problems because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year. Yet, even though we know these things aren’t true, year after year we keep doing the same thing.

In Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol, which greatly impacted the creation of our modern understanding of Christmas and its attendant celebrations, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts.  The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley, who, covered in chains, comes to warn Scrooge first of the dangers if he continues to live his life as he has, and second to tell him of three more ghosts who will come to visit him during the night.  The first ghost is, appropriately enough, the ghost of Christmas past, who comes to help Scrooge to remember and to learn from the past, so that he can move into the future.  Because it turns out that Scrooge wasn’t born a scrooge, well actually he was since that is his family name, but that he was not always the person we associate with being a scrooge.  Following the ghost’s and Isaiah’s lead, we are going to prepare the way and make our paths straight to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, to try and free ourselves of some of the chains that fetter us so that we can come to see Christmas in a new way.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gettin' Some Cold Cuts

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 1:3-9:

I hope that all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day and thought long and hard about what we are thankful for this year, but while hopefully this year’s celebration was wonderful, I’m sure that all of us have some story about Thanksgiving not going quite right.  But whatever stories we might have, I think that Mary Clingman can beat us.  For you see, Mary has been a receiving calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline for more than 30 years.  She recounts the time that a woman called and asked what she needed to do differently to cook the turkey at high altitudes, when asked how high she was, the caller said, the 32nd floor.  Or there was the woman who called to say that her kitchen was on fire and wanted to know what to do, she was told to hang up and dial 911.  Then there was the person who called and asked if the yellow netting and wrapping should be removed before cooking.  The answer is yes.  But I have to say my favorite was the man who called to ask if their frozen turkey was still good.  When asked how long they had had it, he said it was at least five years, but they couldn’t really remember.  Had it always been kept frozen, she asked, no, he said, they had moved once and then there was the time that the freezer stopped working, so it had probably at least partially defrosted a couple of times, after being told him that the turkey probably was not good and should be discarded.  The man said that’s what he had figured, so he was glad he had given it to a charity.  Or maybe Thanksgiving is more like a post from Ann, who lives in Miami, Ohio; she said “Thanksgiving horror stories?  I have none.  I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it.”

Thanksgiving is the time in which we gather together to be reminded of the things we are truly thankful for and appreciative of, which certainly includes our families and friends, we eat too much watch a little football and simply try and just enjoy the day.  It’s really one of the truly few days in our culture in which there is not a push to be out working more or working harder; we are actually encouraged to take some time off to enjoy the important things in life.

Of course one of the great ironies of Thanksgiving Day, although I also think it’s also quite appropriate for our culture, is that on the very day in which we pause in order to give thanks for the things we have in our lives, on the day in which we say that we are happy and content, or at the very least on the day in which we are supposed to say that we appreciate the things that really matter, which is not our stuff, is the very day in which we now go out to buy all the things we just said we were happy without.

It is estimated that approximately 140 million Americans will go shopping this weekend, that’s a little less than half the population, and the American Retail Federation estimates that we will spend 617 billion dollars in November and December this year, up about 4% from last year.  The CEO of Macy’s said that while their marketing studies show that people say they don’t want stores to be open on Thanksgiving Day, that our actions don’t match that, and sure enough there were an estimated 15,000 people waiting to get into the Macy’s in New York City when they opened, Walmart reports 22 million shoppers on Thursday, and Target said they were selling 1800 televisions a minute on Thanksgiving.  And then of course there are the fights and other events that take place during the Black Friday rush.  One of my favorite lines from Black Friday was following a shooting in California several years ago in which one parent wouldn’t let go of the Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, of whatever was the hot seller that year, in which the newscasters said after reporting it, and I could not make this up, “but don’t worry, shopping was not interrupted.”

Now some of you may be thinking or wondering why it is that I am talking about Thanksgiving when we are now two days past it and quickly making our way towards Christmas, and the reason is because what we do on Thanksgiving and its aftermath says a lot for us about Christmas and what we truly consider important, and it was really summed up by an article that appeared in the London Telegraph which began “If you thought Hallowe’en, Father’s Day and Starbucks were terrible American commercial confections, invading our high streets and calendars, then prepare yourself for another US takeover: Black Friday.”  Apparently although Black Friday has been taking place in America since before world war II, it’s a very new phenomenon in England, having been first introduced by a store owned by Walmart last year, but taking off this year, with many of the same thoughts and regrets that we have, and coming to this conclusion: “The arrival of Black Friday from the US… confirms how Christmas, once a Christian festival – and largely a German one at that – has taken on an irretrievably Stateside materialistic sheen.” (Harry Wallop)  And just to show you were it’s going, Visa estimates that they will be doing sales of £360,000 per minute, although I have no idea how much that actually is, a 22% increase from last year.  So we’re even corrupting the uptight British, and apparently they aren’t happy about it, although some are thrilled with all the deals they are getting.

Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, as he does most of his letters, with a salutation that includes a thanksgiving.  But notice something very important about what Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus.”  That is he is thanking them for their faithfulness in some ways, but who Paul is actually thanking is God.  He is giving thanks to God for them, and thanking God for what God has given to them, including God’s grace, but also for the spiritual gifts that they have received.  And Paul does not say if you have every spiritual gift, and a flat screen TV, or that $99 Xbox, then you will be truly happy and truly blessed.  Instead Paul says that they have already received everything they need, they have already been enriched in God and that God will strengthen them to the end, a phrase that should sound sort of familiar after what we have been talking about for the past few weeks.  But notice also that what they receive, what we receive, is a gift.  Can we earn a gift?  No, it’s given freely, and thus when we hear in advertising that we will get a free gift, that’s a redundancy, because if you have to pay for it, it’s not a gift.  But a gift is freely given without cost, and it is what we receive from God, and we know that why?  Because God is faithful.

So we are called not merely to give thanks, to pause and appreciate what is going on, but we are called, following Paul’s example, of giving thanks to God where everything begins and ends, because God is the alpha and the omega.  The problem is that most of us are not really good at giving thanks.  That is that we might say things we are thankful for, but they’re sort of superficial, or the things that we know we’re supposed to be thankful for, and we don’t really pay attention to the other things that happen to us or are around us every single day, that we overlook or totally take for granted.  Our preschool program had posted the things that the kids in the classes were thankful for.  And what I always like about listening to kids is that there is the total unexpectedness of being appreciative for the things we never even think of.  So one child said they were thankful for Spiderman.  A fine answer.  Another said that they were thankful for cows.  Not one I would think of, but a good answer.  But the one I loved the best was the child who said they were thankful for balloons.  How wonderful is that?  And balloons are really wonderful things, but how many of us would really every think to give thanks for balloons?  Those are the things we overlook.  What if we didn’t approach life that way?  What if we really appreciated the small things in life?  What if we approached every single day as a miracle and noticed and celebrated all the things that happened?  What if we were in fact more like Ickey Woods?
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How different would our lives be if we got excited and celebrated silly, simple things in our life, even things as simple as getting’ cold cuts?

In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote about one afternoon when the men had all walked back to their barracks after their day’s labor.  They were lying in their beds, exhausted and sick after having spent the day in a cold rain.  Suddenly, he says, one of the men ran into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside.  Reluctant to leave their beds, but hearing the urgency in the man’s voice, they staggered outside.  They found that the rain had stopped, and although dark heavy clouds still hung in the sky, the sun had broken through and was reflecting on the puddles of water on the floor of the courtyard.  “We stood there,” Frankl said, “marveling at the goodness of the creation.  We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself.”  There were obviously lots of things that Frankl and his other prisoners could be worried about and focused on, and they were, until someone brought them out of it and they stood in awe at the beauty of creation.

In an experiment at the University of Michigan, researchers found that students who kept a “gratitude journal,” a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.  In another study researchers found that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others, and either to God or to creation in general, tended to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole.  This result held even when researchers factored out such things as age, health, and income – equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty may have more to be grateful for.  In other words, expressing gratitude can not only make you happier but can make you healthier, and the reverse is also true, that worrying can literally make you sick.  No wonder Jesus tells us not to worry and to be like the birds and lilies of the field.

Some of you may have heard about the appreciation challenge, in which you list the things you are thankful for for a certain number of days.  Well I am going to challenge us to do that for the next 25 days, to list out the things we thankful for so we can realize that Christmas is not our birthday, that it’s not about the presents we will receive or even that we may give, but instead about what we have already been given and to give thanks to God.  And so in your bulletin you will find a sheet to help you do that, and I invite you to share it on our Facebook page or on Twitter, or in other places.  I’m also going to warn you that the first few days will probably be easy, and we’ll list the things we know we’re supposed to be thankful for, but then it will get harder because we have to concentrate on appreciate other things like our ability to get cold cuts or for balloons.  And let us always remember that we are not giving thanks for things, because that places the emphasis on the object, whatever it is, but instead we are giving thanks to God who provides for us, so that when we come to Christmas we can truly once again appreciate the greatest gift that the world has ever received, because God so loved the world that he gave us his only son that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life.  I pray it will be so my brothers and sisters.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Revelation: A Proclamation of Hope

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 21:1-7, 22:1-5:

In his letter to the Romans, Paul says “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now… For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:18, 22, 24-25)  We need hope not in the best moment of our lives, not in the brightness of day, not in the celebrations of life, not in the mountain top experiences, we need hope in the darkness, in the worst moments, in the pain and suffering in the valley of the shadow of death, that is not only where we need the hope but consistently in scripture that is when hope is not only offered but where hope is given.  In our Disciple 1 Bible Study, we are currently working through the prophets and their visions of destruction and suffering, and yet even in the midst of all of that God offers a word of consolation through the prophets that the people are not alone, that they are not abandoned, that God is present for them in the midst of all of it, and that God will redeem the situation and will redeem them, so don’t give up, keep going with patient endurance, remain true to the faith

Of course that is also the same phrase we have heard John offering in Revelation, that if the 7 churches that he is writing to are not already suffering because of their faith in Jesus and their refusal to worship the emperor or the state, that they soon will be, but they need to endure to the end, because in the end God will win, and then we get his vision found in chapters 21 and 22 which tells of the coming of a new heaven and the new earth.  And John hears a voice who tells him, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)  Although there have been hints of this message throughout Revelation, the closing chapters are John’s message of hope and consolation, not just for those who are suffering or may be suffering persecution because of their faith, but for all of us, because let’s face it, life is not always a bowl of cherries or a rose garden.  There are difficulties and pain and suffering that we all undergo just by being alive, and so John is telling us to persevere because we know how it ends and it’s pretty glorious.