Sunday, January 31, 2016

Childhood's End

1 Corinthians 13 Common English Bible (CEB)

13 If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.

8 Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. 9 We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12 Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.


Working with the lectionary is always a bit of a challenge.  My preacher-teachers recommended following the lectionary because of the challenge.  It will force us to study passages we don’t like or have an affinity for and that will cause us to look at ourselves more closely.  Also, when preachers choose their favorite passages all the time they tend to stick to a handful that speak to their own particular points of view.  Not only does the preacher not grow, but neither does the congregation.  It’s not as if they don’t give us plenty to study and think about and struggle with.  Every week there are four passages to consider - Hebrew scripture, Psalm, Gospel and Letter - and they rotate over a three year period.  That means it would take me twelve years to get through all of them.  I do sometimes deviate from the lectionary, but I stick with the lectionary readings most of the time. Sometimes I wonder why the lectionary committee chose such a short passage or such very long one.  Sometimes I wonder why they chose the beginning and end of a passage and left out the middle.   Other times I wonder why on earth they selected passages that are so packed with meaning that it would take four sermons to do justice to it.  

This is one of those other times.  I could preach a full sermon on each of these three short paragraphs plus a separate one on verses 11 and 12.  That’s where I was focusing when I chose my title a few weeks ago - “Childhood’s End.”  And then I was delighted to discover that the Children’s Song today would be “Jesus loves me.”  

I’ve always believed that.  I’m not sure how I came to believe that.  What I learned in catechism class was more about Jesus’ death than his love. And before the 2nd Vatican Council in the mid 1960s we didn’t sing in church, so I didn’t learn it there.  But I went to public school in the 1950s in a small farming town in Pennsylvania, and we sang hymns in class.  I distinctly remember marching around the classroom singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 4th grade.  In earlier years we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and listened to the story of Jesus telling the disciples to let the children come to him.   Maybe that’s where I first learned to believe that.  I know that even during all the years I stayed away from church, I always believed that Jesus loved me.   I believed as a child believes - no matter what, Jesus loves me.  No matter what, I could curl up at his feet like a child and he would love and comfort me.  All I had to do was just sit there and let him love me.

I believed as a child.  But then I grew up - I became part of a congregation and I discovered that Jesus love is much more complicated than I had thought.  It could no longer be just something I accept, as it washes over me like warm sunlight.  I started really listening to passages like Matthew 25:40, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”   I started really hearing passages like this one, this “love is …” passage that we love to use in weddings, and realizing that love is not passive.  And it’s not a feeling.  It is not something I sit and accept - it is something I take strength from and go do.  It is a response to God’s love, made manifest in Jesus.  So as I sat in that congregation at Treasure Coast Christian Church listening to Pastor Betsy preach I learned that Jesus does, indeed, love me, and that I need to love him back. 

So . . . love is . . .  Consider that list of things that Love is.  “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.”  That is so beautiful!   And easy, right?  Love is patient . . . so standing in line at the DMV or Social Security office - not a problem, right?  Love is kind [and] isn’t rude [or] irritable . . .  so even, especially when I’m having a rough day I am sweetness and light to everyone I meet, right?  Love doesn’t keep a record of complaints . . .  so when I’m having a “discussion” with my beloved I am careful only to address the particular thing that’s going on right now, right?  

Love is hard work!  None of the items in that list of things love is are easy to do.  Each one of them takes constant vigilance and practice on our part.  Each of them can be a prayer focus - although I would caution against praying for patience. It has been my experience that when I pray for patience I am given the opportunity to practice being patient by being stuck in the longest, slowest lines or having something I need take way too long to arrive.  

“Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”  This verse is a bit problematic at first glance.  As a survivor of domestic violence, I know that these words have been used to encourage women and men to remain in abusive relationships.  “It is your duty to endure whatever comes in your marriage” we are told.  And I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, because of the line that comes above - “love isn’t happy with injustice, but is happy with the truth.”  Just as love would call us to put a stop to the injustice of someone else being abused, so we must not permit ourselves to be abused.  And trust me, I know just exactly how hard it is.   I think Jesus doesn’t much approve of anything that we do or allow to be done to us that results in damage to our bodies or souls.  

I went to the Disciples Women’s Quadrennial Assembly in Indianapolis a while back and bought a Jesus doll.  I claimed I was going to use it for children’s moments and possibly even when I needed to counsel a child.  But the truth is, I like dolls.  And I love Jesus. So when I saw these dolls it was pretty much a given that I was going to buy one.   I walked around the rest of that day with my Jesus doll held close, facing me.  Until I happened to look down at him while I was smoking a cigarette  . . .  and that loving expression that had so impressed me at the vendor’s booth had turned into a look of disappointment.  I quickly changed his position so he was looking ahead instead of at me.  That way I couldn’t see his face while I smoked. . . like a child hiding from my big brother.   

I think it’s like that whenever we do or permit anything to cause damage to ourselves.  You know, that whole “if I don’t love myself I can’t love anyone else” thing.  If we are to treat others with love, we must love ourselves.  Be patient with ourselves.  Be kind to ourselves. Trust in ourselves.  Hope in ourselves.  That is every bit as much work as being patient, kind and trusting with others - maybe even more so.  It seems that we are always harder on ourselves than we are on others.  

There’s another thing that love is.  Love is quiet.  Love isn’t going around loudly proclaiming itself.  Love is simply going about doing.   

Now that I’m a man, I’ve put an end to childish things.”  At the very end of The House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh sat together, doing Nothing. Soon, Christopher Robin would be heading off to school and Pooh would be left behind.  Christopher Robin tried to explain it to Pooh, without actually saying he was leaving. 
"Pooh, when I'm --- you know --- when I'm not doing Nothing, will you be here sometimes?
"Just me?"
"Yes, Pooh."
"Will you be here too?"
"Yes, Pooh, I will be, really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
"That's good," said Pooh.
"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."
Pooh thought for a little.
"How old shall I be then?"
Pooh nodded.
"I promise," he said.
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw. "Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I --- if I'm not quite ---" he stopped and tried again --- "Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"

So as the sun sets they walk together one last time, before grown up things claim all of Christopher Robin’s attention and he starts looking at the world with different eyes.  He will never forget Pooh, and Pooh will never forget him, but that pure childish delight in their adventures together will be a thing of the past.  

So it is with our love of Jesus.  Our innocent belief in that Jesus who sits surrounded by children  grows into faith in the Jesus who asked the crippled man if he really wanted to be healed, who told the woman taken in adultery to go and sin no more, who turned over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. . . and who says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”    

I still believe Jesus loves me . . . but now my understanding of that love includes the knowledge that love is really hard work.  As we grow in faith, may we also grow in our ability to love, to be kind, to be patient, to call out injustice and insist on truth, to live as Jesus would have us live - as he himself lived.  May our faith allow us to say yes when he asks if we want to be healed, and obey when he tells us to sin no more, and endure when it seems like Christian living is just too hard.    May we go from this place to share the Gift of Love with everyone we meet.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Parts is Parts

1 Corinthians 12:12-31 Common English Bible (CEB)   

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. 23 The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. 24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. 27 You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. 28 In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. 29 All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? 30 All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they? 31 Use your ambition to try to get the greater gifts. And I’m going to show you an even better way.

If you were watching TV commercials in the 1980s you might remember a commercial for Wendy’s chicken sandwiches.  It was pretty much making fun of McDonalds’ chicken sandwiches.    A man standing in line at some nameless burger place asks the person behind the counter what was in the chicken sandwich.  He was told “Processed chicken, where they take a bunch of chickens and process their respective parts.”  When the counter man was pressed for an answer about exactly which parts were in the nuggets, he said “Parts is parts,” leaving the viewer to think that maybe their chicken sandwiches had beaks and feet or worse in them.  Yuck. Wendy’s sandwiches, of course, were made of pure white meat chicken.  

Beaks and feet might not be anything you and I would be happy eating, but according to Paul, parts is parts, and every part is equally valued in God’s eyes.  Foot, eye, nose, intestine . . . all the parts that make up the human body are equally valuable. Those parts, in fact, those internal, unattractive parts, are so greatly honored that God covered them up and protected them with muscles and skin and hair - the pretty parts.  Now it is true that we can do without this or that part of the body - one can function very well with one kidney, for instance, as April and Alan know very well.  Likewise, many military veterans and other persons who have suffered the loss of a limb live full, rich lives and do whatever they want to do, even entering the Olympics if they so choose.  All kinds of people have had surgeries to remove various internal organs - gall bladder, appendix, tonsils, reproductive organs, etc.  I concede that people function just fine without those parts, but they know there is something missing.  They know that they are not whole. Adjustments often have to be made in behavior or diet or attitude when a part is missing or has been replaced. What we do know is that if any one part of our body is not functioning correctly or hurts for some reason, the entire body suffers on account of it.

Likewise, each of the gifts that we receive from the Spirit of God are equally valuable and necessary in the body of the church. I am amazed and blessed by the gifts I see among you here. I am constantly surprised by the large number of excellent pray-ers there are in this congregation. Nearly everyone seems to take some part in worship leadership as deacon or elder or presider or sound and projection tech or children’s time.  It seems as if half of the congregation is made up of teachers.  Musical talent is abundant.  Some of you are good at making sure the business of being church runs smoothly so that worship can happen - keeping our doors open and lights on and roof repaired.  Some of you are gifted healers, like Janice, who uses the gifts of her hands to ease pain and stress.  And Geneva, who works with an extremely challenging population and is gifted for that work.  Some are artists, like Jeff who enhances our worship space with his gift for design.  All are gifted in one way or another that blesses us and makes us whole.

I mentioned last week that a Pentecostal evangelist once told me that I cannot be a pastor because I don’t have all the spiritual gifts in full measure.  In today’s passage we again see that Paul rejected that as not even possible.  29 All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? 30 All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they?  
Ministers, however, do tend to think that we need to be able to do all the things that ministers might be asked to do equally well - preaching and praying and planning worship and office administration and visiting and so on . . . . Sometimes our congregations think that too.  That is a problem, because it’s not true.  Even ministers have a limit to their gifs and talents.  There are some things I’m not very good at.  I’m not good at selecting worship music, so I am delighted to leave most of that work to our very talented music staff.  I’m not great at coming up with clever ideas for special worship services, so I am equally delighted to have a creative Spiritual Growth Team.   Another thing I’m really not good at is dropping in on folks.  Hospital visits, yes.  But home visits are an entirely different story.  I’m not good at calling up and saying “Hi, can I come visit you?”  It’s my mother’s fault.  She taught me never to invite myself over to visit anyone.  She wouldn’t even drop in on her own sister!  Truly.  I will get better at this as I get to know you better, but in the meantime invitations are welcome!   

All ministers are, however, expected to preach at least once in a while.  When we study preaching in seminary we are told we need to be prophets.  To speak unwelcome truth to power.  To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  Some of my friends are really good at the afflicting part - and not in a bad way.  I read Derek Penwell’s sermons and blog posts and articles in the Huffington Post and I admire the way he uses words. I admire the way he uses his vast knowledge of scripture, history and politics to point fingers at oppressive systems and power hungry groups and individuals.  But that’s not me. I’m much better at the comforting the afflicted part.  I’m more of a healer than a prophet, I’m afraid.  I’m better at helping the folks I was called to serve figure out how Christians ought to act from one day to the next.  And until I came here, I thought that was a flaw in my ministry.  Now I believe it is, in fact, my gift.  

Each of us is equally valuable in God’s eyes.  The hairdresser and the opera singer and the teacher and the student and the farmer and the office worker and the picker of grapes, the retired person and the person just entering the job market, the long time Christian and the seeker, the pastor and the nursery attendant and the child.  Each of us have gifts to contribute to Christ’s church that make it one, whole body.  Each of us is necessary to the functioning of that body.

This congregation took the very important step to become a welcoming congregation.  You have publicly made the statement that All Means All.  It was difficult.  There was some contention and disagreement.  There is still some fallout and perhaps even hard feelings over that decision.  This statement - All Means All - is an important theological statement. It states very clearly who we believe ourselves to be.   Everyone who comes to that door is welcome here.  None of those false differences that cause division among us keep people out.  We welcome everyone who comes to that door - regardless of gender, orientation, immigration status, race, ethnicity, employment status, age.  We welcome addicts and homeless people, people with mental and psychiatric disorders and diseases  . . .We welcome service animals, without whom some of our members couldn’t worship with us.  We welcome people of any political persuasion and any theological position.  We say that all of this is true whenever we say All Means All.  

We welcome everyone who comes to that door. . . so  there are no wheelchairs here.  There is no one here on crutches.  There are a couple of walkers and those few people have come in to worship by way of the ramp on the side of the building.  But they can’t get to Fellowship Hall or to the bathrooms. For the most part everyone here is physically able to get up the stairs into the sanctuary, and down the stairs to the bathrooms, and up the steps to the library, and up the steps to the lectern. 

My sisters and brothers, we are missing some parts.  We are missing Jason.  We are missing a number of homebound folks who are only homebound because they can’t get around inside the building.  Without them, we are not whole.  Without them, we will never be whole.  Without them, we are not living out the theological statement that we proclaim - All Means All.  But we have a plan for the future that will make that statement true.  We have plans for a new building to which all will have access, in which All really will mean All.  In that new place we can be the body of Christ as we are called to be.  In that new place we can be whole.  I know that building, that inclusion, that physical evidence of welcome to all persons is your dream - it is also mine.  And together, as one body, we will work to make that dream come true.  It will take a great deal of effort and dedication to make that dream come true and that’s a good thing. Because that dream is the basis for our Christian faith, a way of living which rejects no one, oppresses no one, omits no one, but welcomes all.  A way of living in which each person’s gifts are lifted up and utilized and blessed as equally valued as everyone else’s gifts.  A way of sharing our God given gifts, a way of loving our God and our neighbor, as our Lord Jesus, the Christ has taught us to do.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Don't be ignorant!

1 Corinthians 12:1-11   Common English Bible    

12 Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. 2 You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. 3 So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8 A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, 9 faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

This is one of those passages that is very familiar to most of us. The Spirit of God blesses each of us with different gifts.  One is not better than the others, just different.  They all come from the same God, who chooses what gift to give each person.  We shouldn’t think we are all that because we can speak in tongues, or translate what the tongue speakers are saying, or heal others by the laying on of hands. . .  yadayadayada.   I don’t know about you, but for the longest time I didn’t even believe some of these gifts were real.  I mean, speaking in tongues?  Really?  And then I met someone who actually did speak in tongues while a bunch of us were laying hands on another who seemed to be troubled by an evil spirit . . .  maybe I should explain that before I go any further.

In the summer of 1999 I was invited to attend the Disciples African American Clergywomen’s Retreat. They had arranged for a couple of massage therapists to come along so that each of us could spend 30 minutes in blissful relaxation.  After a couple of days, however, one of them was reporting a troubling in her soul and a fearful feeling when she tried to sleep.  It turned out that she hadn’t realized just how much of the negative energy all those clergywomen were releasing through massage was entering into her, and since she didn’t do anything to release it her sleep was disturbed. That’s how I understood it.  Many of my clergy sisters were more direct in saying that an evil spirit had entered into her and needed to be cast out.  A group of us gathered around her and laid hands on her while some prayed aloud, rebuking the evil spirit.  Meanwhile, one of the sisters was walking around us uttering sibilant sounds.  I had no idea what she was saying, but I knew it was good and powerful.  I could feel warmth and light entering me from above and going back out through my hands.  I could feel the darkness leaving the young women.  When we finished I was exhausted as if I had run a race.  Yet all I had done was stand there with my hands on the young woman’s shoulder.   Later a few of the women went up to the room and chased the evil out of there as well.  

Mind you, all of this was totally foreign to me.  My faith, up to that point, had been more intellectual than spiritual.  I mean, I believed that with God anything was possible.  But the whole idea of speaking in tongues, casting out demons and suchlike was way outside my experience and understanding.  I hadn’t really believed that such things had a place in church. After all, we are educated people. We aren’t superstitious the way those new Christians in Corinth were.   Luckily I went on that Africa American Clergywomen’s retreat and experienced faith differently.  Luckily I went on that retreat and became more open minded. 

My understanding of this passage is that these gifts are pretty much one to a customer, and that we don’t get to judge others on which ones they possess.  I once met a Pentecostal evangelist who told me I couldn’t possibly be a pastor because I didn’t possess all of these gifts in equal measure.  She was particularly concerned that I didn’t speak in tongues.  Sadly, that’s not something I’ve ever done sober, and I’m pretty sure anything I might have said while drunk wouldn’t have been considered very spiritual.   

You know, I’m really glad that I’m not Paul. I’m really glad I’m not the guy who had to deal with all the fussing and feuding in the early church.  His two letters to the church in Corinth address all kinds of issues, but when we come right down to it most of those issues had to do with this group thinking they were superior to that group, and him having to straighten them out.  “Stop dividing yourselves into groups!”  he kept saying.  We tend to think of the early Church as a movement among the lower status folks - fishermen and slaves, women and tax collectors.  Corinth was different.  It was a Greek city, but it was much more Roman, more egalitarian, in the way the social order worked.  For instance, in Corinth freed slaves could hold elected office and amass wealth, which was the rule in Rome but not in the rest of Greece.  Likewise, in Corinth the members of the church came all social classes.  There were wealthy folks worshipping next to the slaves who scrubbed their floors.  Jews and pagans not just worshipping together, but eating together!  Men and women sharing a room for worship and sitting at the same table.  We would like to believe that people in the early church would be all loving and embracing each other and singing Kum ba ya together.  

But no.  They fought over every little thing.  The rich folks brought lots of food and drink to the Lord’s day worship and wouldn’t share with the poor. They fought over whether it was ok to eat meat sold in the markets that had been sacrificed to some of the other gods worshipped in the city.  The Jews and the Greeks didn't agree on whether it was necessary to adhere to the Law.  They argued over whether married couples should be celibate.  The well educated wouldn’t listen to those who had the wisdom of age and experience.  The ones who could perform miracles lorded it over those who could “only” heal or speak in tongues.  
Paul had to deal with all of that. These two letters deal with those issues and more.  Much of what Paul has to say is “Quit fighting with each other!”  When it came to the question of spiritual gifts he said, “Don’t be ignorant!  You don’t seem to understand what these gifts are and where they come from.  Everything that comes from the Spirit glorifies the Christ!”  The reverse, of course, is “nothing that doesn’t glorify Christ can possibly come from the Spirit.”

Tomorrow is the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   Banks and post offices will be closed, as well as many schools and businesses around the country.  There will be parades in many cities and celebrations in many churches.  People will quote his most famous speeches and sermons.  Scholarships will be awarded in his name.  We will remember him as a peace loving man who lived in violent times, who rejected violence as a method to achieve freedom for his people . . . and maybe the fact that I just said “his” people instead of “all” people is as close as anything else to proof that his dream is still far from reality.  Nevertheless, his dream was to bring all of us together.   His dream was to end fear and hatred, to live together in the Beloved Community where Christ-like justice, compassion and mercy would be the rule not the exception.  

Tomorrow we will also hear news of groups and individuals who preach fear and hatred, who are doing everything in their power to separate us and make us fight with each other - over race, ethnicity, gender, gender identify, sexual orientation, religious tradition, socio-economic class,  immigration status, physical ability, mental capacity… anything that might make us look or feel different, one from another.  We will hear about people who are doing their best to make us be suspicious of one another, to tear us apart as a nation instead of bringing us together.  One has gone so far afield that the church he claimed membership in found it necessary to state publicly he is not a member of their denomination.  

Paul told the Christians in Corinth,  Don't be ignorant! "No one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit.”  It isn’t like people claiming to be Christians were running around the churches saying Jesus is cursed.  It is rather that he found it necessary to make the point that everything coming from the Spirit glorifies the Christ.  Evil acts and evil words, behaviors and speeches that do not glorify God and Jesus are not the work of the Spirit - they can’t be.  When we argue, when we get ugly with or about each other, we are not in the Spirit.  But when we are doing the good - using our knowledge, our wisdom, our gifts of healing, teaching, praying, and even speaking in tongues - then we are in the Spirit.  Then we are living as the body of Christ.

Paul’s focus throughout these letters was bringing all the different faces of the church together.  His point, his response to every point of contention was, “Just get along!  None of this stuff is important!  What is important is unity in the name of Christ. What is important is that each of you is uniquely qualified to serve Christ in your own way.  It doesn’t matter what you eat, or what you wear, or where you sit, and whether you can read, or who your parents are.  It only matters that you use the gifts the Spirit of God has given you in the service of God.  It only matters that you do your best to love one another.  It only matters that every word you speak, every action you perform, glorifies the Christ.”

Dr. King dreamed of the Beloved Community, a place where all different kinds of people live together in peace and harmony, working together for the common good, each individual a living blessing to every other individual. Dr. King dreamed of a world where oppression had ceased to exist, where war had ended, where the model for every person’s life was the Christ.   Dr. King dreamed of a world where Paul’s hopes for the church were taken to heart by all . . .  Don’t be ignorant.  Live as Jesus lived.  And accept one another, as Jesus accepted you.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Share and share alike: a sermon on stewardship

Acts 4:32-5:5
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

5 But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” 5 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.


The Bible is full of terrible, awful stories, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures.  There are stories of rape, torture, horrific murders, even the wholesale slaughter of innocents, all in the name of God and apparently even at the direction of God . . . really dreadful, ugly passages.  We do our best to avoid talking about then.  We prefer to think our God wouldn’t condone such behavior.   We like to read the New Testament, because that’s all about love and kindness and justice.   Well, except for Revelation.  But since that is clearly a dream, and since Martin Luther and John Calvin didn’t think it should even be included in the Bible, we sort of ignore that much of the time.  Remind me to tell you sometime about how the Book of Revelation kept me from coming back to church for an extra three or four years. . . 
But aside from that, the New Testament is filled with stories about our dear, loving Jesus, a forgiving God who only wants to be reconciled with us, and a series of letters telling us how to be church.  There are some bits where people treat each other terribly . . . Stephen is stoned to death for blasphemy, Saul runs around trying to have all the Jesus followers imprisoned, Christians are imprisoned and persecuted and executed, and of course, Jesus himself is tortured and crucified . . . but God is always good and loving and forgiving and  . . . strikes Ananias and his wife Sapphira dead for lying about their giving to the church.  

Wait, what?

Yes. Not just Ananias, but also his wife Sapphira, because when she showed up later in the day she also lied about the price of the land, and she also was struck down dead on the spot.  The story ends with this line, “ And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”  

This is one of those terrible passages that no one ever talks about.  I mean, we hear stories all the time about how doing the right thing brings blessings.  It is not uncommon to hear an offering meditation on how someone really couldn’t afford to tithe but did anyway, and everything they needed was provided from some unexpected source.  The one thing we hardly ever hear is, “He lied about his giving and God struck him dead!”  If you ask me, this is probably one of the most poorly thought out stewardship campaigns in the history of the church!  I mean, consider the ramifications for a moment.  

Say you meet a friend in the street and you want him to know about Jesus and your church.  The conversation might go something like this:  “Hey, friend.  I belong to this awesome church.  We all love each other and we welcome everybody.  We go out into the community to help others, even people who aren’t part of our community of faith.  And we have these great worship services, with music and inspired preaching from people who actually knew Jesus himself when he walked the world with us, before he ascended into the heavens.  Would you like to come with me to worship next Sunday to learn about Jesus?”  Then the person listening, having heard about Ananias and Sapphire says to himself, “Yeah, right?  And if I don’t give the way their god thinks I ought to I get struck dead on the spot?  I don’t think so.” and makes some excuse or other not to come.

There is a person I know who has asked me repeatedly whether or not this actually happened.  And my answer was always the same.  “I don’t know.”  This book, the Acts of the Apostles, is the closest thing we have to a history of the early years of the church.  But it was, after all, written by one person who was relying on hearsay for much of his information.  Many scholars believe Luke was a well educated Gentile, possibly a physician, who had converted to Judaism, which explains the excellence of his writing and the particular world view from which he writes.  But he wouldn’t have been present at many of the events described in his book.  He would of necessity have relied on the testimony of others who had either been present or had spoken to someone who had been present.  One of the clues we have as to the occasional inaccuracy of these stories comes from Paul’s letters.  The letters were written much earlier than the Gospels and Acts, and they were written by the actual person involved in the events reported.  Yet in a number of cases, Paul’s account of events disagrees entirely with what Luke says Paul was doing at the time.  So we have to consider that some of the stories we find in the Acts of the Apostles may not be entirely accurate in the historical sense.  

That is not to say they do not contain Truth.  Merely that the data contained in them may not be entirely accurate, in much the same way that a household budget may contain some numbers that aren’t correct but the overall picture at the end remains the same.  In the case of a household budget that is running in the red, it doesn’t really matter whether the cable bill is $60 or $160 if either way, at the end of the month, there is more money going out than coming in.  

The full title of today’s message, the way I have it written down, is “Share and share alike: a sermon on stewardship.”  You all may not know this, but pastors tend to dislike preaching on stewardship.  We do it, but it feels a bit self-serving.  You know?  Because it feels like standing up here saying, “Give the church money so I can get paid.”  That’s not really conducive to impassioned preaching, especially if the congregation’s budget is running in the red.  But I chose this passage, even though it doesn’t appear anywhere in the lectionary, because I think it makes an important point about the way we consider giving.

Acts 5:11 says: “ And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”   In some congregations, people listen closely to the doomsayers.  “If we lose members, if so and so stops giving, if we don’t cut expenses, we’re going to die!”  And everyone gets scared, because they don’t want anything bad to happen. They don’t want their church to dwindle and die.  In most cases the first budget items that get cut are outreach programs and staff.  The focus of the congregation turns inward, toward preserving the building, preserving the past, preserving the way things have always been.   The people we rarely listen to, however, are the children.  When you ask a child where they think the money goes that we collect on Sunday, they will almost always say, “To help people.” They almost never say, “To pay the electric bill.”    Children get why we give.  Sometimes we forget.

We know that the early church wasn’t worried about maintaining a building, but only about spreading the Good News of God’s love, and about helping people. . .

Back to the story.  I would like to believe that the Grim Story of Ananias and Sapphire is inaccurate.  I’d like to believe that maybe they wanted to die of embarrassment when they were caught lying about their giving, but not that God struck them dead where they stood.  I think that this is an allegorical story, that the death they suffered wasn’t so much actual physical death, but rather death of the soul that comes from sin.  I think it was more a case of “you’re dead to us so we’re removing you from our presence” than that they were actually taken out by the young men and buried in the ground.

What I’m pretty sure is true, however, because we see it all the time, is that someone named Barnabas gave a hefty gift and his generosity was trumpeted around the congregation.  “Hey everybody, lookie here!  Barnabas just gave a huge amount of money!  What a great guy!’  And others felt less than, because they couldn’t give as much.   

I’ve had people tell me they take tithing exactly 10% so seriously that if they find a dime on the ground, they give a penny to the church.  Others have told me they quit tithing 10% and just gave as their hearts moved them to, and forever after got in trouble with the IRS because their giving always exceeded 10%. (I may not believe that God would strike someone dead for misreporting their income, but the IRS? Oh yes.)  For others, giving 1% is a struggle.  

And great fear seized the whole church…”  When we are fearful, when giving becomes a matter for worry instead of something to be joyful about, then we are giving in to the kind of thinking that killed Ananias and Sapphira.  I need to confess that before I came here my giving - which was closer to 1% than 10% - was a matter of great concern and worry to me.  I was upset at how it must look that the pastor of the congregation wasn't able to give as I thought I should, not and also pay rent, buy food, keep my bills up to date, put gas in my car.  We’ve been told that God loves a joyful giver, but how joyful can we be if we are trying to decide between giving to the church and buying groceries? Giving, for me, was far from joyful.  Since coming here that has changed.  Being able to write a check for 10% of my paycheck is one of the great blessings I have received in coming here to serve you.  However, it would have been better for me to be joyful about giving the little bit I did have, before, and not worry so much about how it looked to others.  I believe that God only wants us to do the best we can do, not what someone else thinks we should do.  I’m just not very good at remembering that.

We’ll be asked later in the service for our tithes and offerings.  And after that, during our annual meeting, we’ll hear about the church budget and how much we need to give to keep doing God’s work in the world.  Listen closely, and consider if you yourself might be able to make changes in your giving.  Remember that all we have comes from God.  All we have belongs to God.  Everything we give to the doing of God’s work in the world is already His.   Whether our giving is in money or in the use of our time and talents . . . we give Him only what is already his.  May we give all that we have with great joy.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The gifts keep coming!

James 1:13-18   Common English Bible

13 No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.

16 Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.


There is a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina - a Latin phrase meaning divine reading.  In that practice a person reads a passage of scripture, often aloud, listening with his mind’s ear carefully to hear what word or phrase jumps out, or seems to have particular meaning.  He then spends a period of time meditating on that word or phrase.  It works really well as a group spiritual practice, which each person reading the phrase out loud, preferably using different translations of scripture, meditating for a few moments, and sharing in prayer form what came to them during their meditation.    

When I first read this passage, for example, it was like verse 17 was written in large, neon letters.  “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.”  This seemed so fitting for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas that I quickly named the sermon “The gifts keep coming!”  Then I reminded our music folks that it is still Christmas and we can keep singing Christmas music for one more week.  

Naturally, the gifts I was thinking about weren’t the packages that got delayed in the mail, but rather the gifts that we think most about during this particular season - peace, joy, love, hope. I thought about the gifts that a new year brings, with the possibilities of new starts and new challenges.  Dee Anne and I chose to use Isaiah 43:19 for the Scripture reading on the masthead of The Caller for 2016, “I’m about to do something brand-new.  It’s bursting out!  Don’t you see it?”  For me, as you all know, this year is new in almost every way.  And if you don’t know please read your Caller, as I wrote about it in my Reverend Minion piece.  
(If you don’t have a Caller, it is posted on the FCC Selma website for your reading pleasure.)

As the week between Christmas and the New Year progressed I began to witness gifts I hadn’t really thought about much.  The gift of friendship manifested in the lives of people who suffered a loss.  The gift of a connected family could be seen in the emails flying between folks who had a loved one in the hospital. The gift of creativity showed up as ideas blossomed around the 100th Anniversary of our beautiful building.  The gift of selfless service is all around - 5 different people showed up in the office this week to see if there was anything they could do to help Dee Anne get the newsletter out!  The phrase “How can I help?” is something I hear a lot around here, and that is a tremendous gift.  

Then this morning, as I read the passage one more time, I saw the phrase, “We are like the first crop in the harvest of everything [God] created.”  I wondered what that meant exactly.  Usually, when we think of giving our “first fruits” we think of giving the best of what we have to offer.  The Hebrew Bible is full of descriptions of exactly what is acceptable as a sacrificial gift to God - rams and bulls and doves completely without blemish, the finest pressing of olives and grapes, the whitest flour.  We think of giving to God what is best and most lovely - the most perfect fruit from the tree, the loveliest cloth from the loom.  And yet, this passage says, “the first crop in the harvest.”  I grew up on a farm so I know a little bit about first crops.  And the fact of the matter is that the first crop from an apple tree or a grape vine, the first eggs from a hen, the wheat that is harvested from that first outer furrow, the first year’s crop of asparagus in the garden . . .  none of them are the best.  The first pot a potter throws, the first shirt a new tailor sews, the first meal anyone cooks . . .  again, not our best efforts. Not what we usually think about when we think about our gifts to God.

When I was simplifying my life I had two piles of stuff.  One was stuff I was definitely keeping because I really loved it or because I really needed it.  The other was stuff that I simply had and either didn’t like or no longer had a use for.  My mantra was if it didn’t enhance my life it was outta here!  Most of the sorting went easily.  But there were a couple of really tough decisions, things I kept moving from one pile to the other.  One was the ugliest pottery ashtray known to humanity.  It was made by a stepson when he was in 5th grade, decades ago, and it was supposed to be an owl.  I ended up keeping it because I couldn’t look at it without remembering the look on his face when he gave it to me. You see, he had always made gifts for his real mother.  This was the first gift he made especially for me.   This first attempt at pottery, ugly and misshapen, was the first evidence that he was growing to care for me.

So perhaps the gifts that God wants from us are not the gifts of the best we have to offer, after all.  And that thought brought me back to the beginning of the passage, the part I wasn’t going to preach on today.  “No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.”
I mean, I understood why the bit about every good gift coming from God following the part about how temptation does not come from God.  (And please notice we are not directed to blame the devil for temptation, either.  According to James, we have no one to blame but ourselves, thank you very much.)  And then I thought about how the change from giving in to temptation to serving God is the path we follow - it is the way in which we are the first harvest.

Consider . . . James was writing primarily to Gentiles, people who had not known much about the God of the Hebrew people or the Law.  He was writing to people who hadn’t grown up with the Law.  They were accustomed to worshipping gods whose behavior was often a prime example of how Christians should not behave - raping young women, turning people into ugly monsters because they were jealous, killing people who opposed them, and so on.  James was teaching these people how to live as Christians. That included taking responsibility for their own actions.  Instead of blaming your misdeeds on some outside force, he said, you need to understand that you are tempted by your own cravings, and those cravings can lead you into sin, and sin leads to the death of the spirit.

Flip Wilson was a very popular comedian in the 1960s and 70s.  One of his best known comedic characters was Geraldine, a sassy Black woman whose boyfriend was named “Killer” and whose catchphrase was, “The devil made me do it!”   ini 970 Wilson won his first Grammy for an album titled “The Devil made me buy this dress.”  Geraldine became so popular that when anyone did anything wrong, they would shrug and say, “The devil made me do it.”   Another of Wilson’s well-known characters, the Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now, would, no doubt, have promised Geraldine forgiveness and salvation for one of those perfect sacrificial gifts, like a Cadillac or a jet plane.  

But I suspect that those aren’t the gifts God desires from us.  I suspect that God prefers our first fruits to our best ones.  I believe that God would be much happier with that ugly owl ashtray than with the most beautifully crafted ceramic owl known to the art world.

Those things that tempt us, those cravings that can lead us into sin, those, I think, would be the gifts that God prefers.  I hate to keep harping on the way we behave on the freeway, but if we give in to our anger and frustration there, in the safety of that iron cage where no one can hear us vent and call the other guy names, the time may come when we give into it at a much less appropriate time.  And that could cause us to damage another person, perhaps physically but almost certainly emotionally, and hurting another is sin.  I don’t mean we should hold in the anger or pretend never to get angry, as that can cause significant emotional and psychological problems.  I mean letting the anger go . . . in this situation, simply allowing that idiot driver to be an idiot driver, perhaps even praying that he isn’t killed as a result of his idiocy.   We might not be good at this at first, but I think God would be greatly pleased by the attempt.  

Anger is an easy example, as most of us know what that is.  Each of us has our own cravings, our own character traits that can lead us into sin, into causing harm to ourselves or to another.   We each know our own temptations and where they can lead us.  These are things we can work at changing about ourselves, offering the work of change to God as our gift, knowing that our first efforts are gifts of great value.  

The gifts just keep coming.  We receive the gift of life from the Lord our God, and in return we give God the gift of our lives.  The Good News is that God does not require perfection from us.  God doesn’t demand that only our very best be offered.  God doesn’t ever turn away a gift because it isn’t good enough.   Rather, God accepts all of the gifts we offer with joy.  God’s love for each of us is unconditional and eternal.  God loves each of us exactly as we are, asking only that we return that love to the best of our ability.   

When we go from this place, let us go with gladness, giving to others the same gifts which we have received; love, peace, joy and hope.  And may these gifts be offered always in the name of Jesus the Christ, Son of God, from whom all good gifts come.