Sunday, July 15, 2018

But I promised!


Scripture   Mark 6:14-29

6:14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”  15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”  16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

6:17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

6:21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.

6:27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.  29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


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If you remember from last week, Jesus had been going around the countryside preaching, teaching, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead.   And King Herod heard about it.  So this part of the story is a flashback.  Because Herod, hearing about Jesus’ works of power, is looking back over what he has done and getting a bit scared about consequences.    “Oh no.  This must be John the Baptizer, raised from the dead.”   Not a zombie.   But the actual person, returned to life by God.  And he was totally worried, because he had done something that he knew at the time he did it was a serious mistake.  He had made an open ended promise.

If we were watching a movie or reading a book, and one character said to another, “I will do this thing for you, but sometime in the future you will owe me a favor.” we would be jumping up and down saying, “Don’t do it!  It’s a trap!”   Part of the reason we feel that way is because of this story.   Herod made a very unwise promise, because he really wasn’t thinking of all the possibilities.   I mean, realistically, what would a typical young woman of the time ask for?   A new chariot, clothes, jewels, a handsome husband.  You know.  Stuff.  The kind of stuff a wealthy king could easily provide.  But Salome wasn’t a typical young woman.  

Salome was the daughter of Herodias and her first husband Herod II, son of Herod the Great (the King Herod from the stories about Jesus’ birth) and half-brother of Herod Antipas, (the King Herod in this story).   So, Salome was both Herod’s niece and his step-daughter.  When she married Herod II, he was in line for the throne.  But his mother had been involved in a plot to poison Herod the Great, so she was executed and her son was kicked out of the succession.  Our Herod was next in line.   The two met and fell in love in Rome, where Herod was getting the Emperor’s approval to take the throne.  Because, you know, Rome pretty much owned the world, so no one could inherit a throne without the Emperor’s approval.  While in Rome Herod and Herodias both divorced their current spouses and married.  This all made the Roman Emperor happy, but did not endear Herod to his people, the Jews of Galilee.  And John preached loudly against this breaking of the Law, because Herodias remarried while her previous husband was still alive.  Anyway . . .  So, Salome had been raised in households filled with political intrigue.  Instead of asking for those things that make a typical young woman’s heart sing (like shoes!), she thought in terms of political power, and asked her mother what would be the best request.   And her mother, who really did not like the things John said about her, asked for his head on a platter.

Sometimes, like Herod, we promise things unwisely.  And then his pride wouldn’t allow him to go back on that promise in front of all his guests.   His wife knew that, and took advantage of his pride - his weakness.   He might have backed out if he hadn’t had a house full of people - diplomats and merchants, wealthy nobles, probably some Romans.  People he had to impress, because if word got back to the Emperor that he was wishy-washy, his life could be over.  Literally.  

That usually isn’t the case with us.   Pride, yes.  Wanting to impress others.  Yes.   Being in fear for our lives if we don’t keep our promise.  Probably not.   But keeping a promise when it goes against your principles and/or your beliefs, that’s not good.  And that is what Herod did.  If ever a promise should have been broken, this is one.  Because he enjoyed his conversations with John.  He knew John was a holy and righteous man.  He really didn’t want to kill him.  But because he made a promise in front of all his guests, he did a thing he knew was wrong, a thing he didn’t even want to do.  

We tend to think that the worst thing we can do is promise something we don’t intend to do.  I used to do that all the time.  I would find myself in some sort of trouble and say, “Oh God, if you just get me out of this one I swear I will never do it again.”   And I pretty much always did it again.  Haven’t had to do that in a long time, for which I am grateful daily.

What is worse is to swear by God’s name that a lie is true.  That one even has a commandment against it.  “You shall not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” means you will not use God’s name to swear to a lie.   So perjury, lying under oath in court, has pretty significant consequences.  Our Quaker brothers and sisters will not swear by God’s name, ever, because they believe that if they swear to something and it turns out that they are mistaken in what they have said, in what they believed to be true, that would be acting against the commandment.  So they will affirm their word in court or when taking an oath of office, but they will not swear on a Bible.    

But worst of all is to make and keep a promise that goes against our ethics and our faith.  These are the promises that should be broken.  Even the oath taken by soldiers specifies they are required to disobey an order, if they are ordered to commit a crime.  “I was just obeying orders.” turns out not to have been a good defense for soldiers who have been convicted of war crimes - like Pfc. Lynndie England in Iraq and Lt. William Calley in Vietnam.  

The most important promise to keep is the one we made to God at the time of our baptism - our promise to renounce evil.   This is greater than any other promise we might make at any time.     It is the one to which we are bound at all times, in every thing we do.   We are sworn to make a determination whether any given thing we might do or say is good or evil, and then to avoid - renounce - the evil, and do the good.    Any word or action that would cause another person to suffer needlessly is most likely evil.  Any word or action that would cause someone to be treated unjustly is most likely evil.  Things like racism, sexism, ageism, homophobism - these are among the many evils to be renounced - in ourselves and in our society.  When we hear people hating on other people, or bullying other people, we need to renounce it.  When we see people treating others unfairly or unjustly for no reason other than skin color or accent, or religion, or perceived orientation, we need to renounce it.  We need always renounce evil when we become aware of it, so that we may be true to the promise we have made to God and to each other.

It is easier to be silent, and not to speak out against evil.  But the promise we each made at our baptism is to renounce evil, to be true to God and to one another.  This takes courage and strength.  It takes determination and faith.  

So when we go from this place let us go filled with strength and courage to do the right thing, always.  Let us go out and be true to the Lord our God, and to our faith.  Let us go out remembering the promise we have made,  in Jesus’ name.   Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Two by Two


Scripture  Mark 6:1-13

6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 6:5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6:6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 6:8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 6:9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 6:10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 6:11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 

6:12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 6:13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

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This really seems like two separate stories, deserving of two separate messages.   And yet, maybe not.   Maybe they do work together.  Let’s see.  

Familiarity breeds contempt.  We all know that one.  Maybe we have experienced it.   In seminary one of the things we were cautioned against ever doing was go back to the church that sent us out as their pastor.  And this passage was used as the reason for that advice.  “It will be hard for them to respect you as their pastor if they remember changing your diapers.  Even if you haven’t been there your entire life, they remember when you left for college, and they heard your first (terrible) sermons.  They aren’t going to appreciate your growth any more than your mother appreciates you are a fully grown, independent adult.  Even Jesus couldn’t go home again.”   Naturally, a few of my classmates and friends decided this sage advice did not apply to them.   I probably don’t have to tell you that 100% of them crashed and burned, and left their home church for their next call sadder and wiser.   The thing about those old sayings, and proverbs and such, is that they pretty much tend to be true.  That’s why they keep being repeated.  

So Jesus has been preaching and doing all kinds of signs and wonders, and healing the sick and casting out demons.  Everywhere, crowds gather to hear him.   Everyone who comes to him for healing goes away well.  He even brought a girl back to life, and healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years!  He commanded a storm on the sea to stop, and it did!  Then he goes back to his home congregation in Galilee and preaches, and the folks from his hometown are all like, “Uh, isn’t this Jesus?  We know Jesus.  He’s the carpenter’s kid.  His brothers and sisters are sitting right over there!  He never went to study the Law, so how can he possibly know what he’s talking about?  We never saw him cure anybody, so these must be stories he’s telling to make himself seem like somebody.  We notice he’s still on foot, wearing ordinary clothes, all dusty and everything.  And all these guys with him are no better than he is - fisherman and such.  Why would we listen to him?”   And he can’t heal anyone in that place, except for just a few sick people.  Because no one had faith in him.  No one believed he had the power.   They knew him too well, you see.  And when you think you know someone, it’s hard to change your mind about what you think you know.  Familiarity breeds contempt.  

So he left that place, and went to teach in the villages around there.  But because   he loved his home, and he knew they needed to hear the Good News as much as anyone else, he sent his disciples out to teach the folks who wouldn’t listen to him.    He sent them out two by two.  He told them not to take anything with them.   If people wanted to hear their message, they would be fed and sheltered.  And if people didn’t want to hear them, they should go on to the next place.  Not push themselves or the Gospel on people with closed minds.  Not insist that people had to listen to them.  Just go on to the next place, where they might get a better reception.  And so they did.  They proclaimed the Good News of God’s forgiveness, and that everyone must repent of their sins to be reconciled with God.   They laid their hands on the demon afflicted and cast out the demons.  They anointed the sick with oil and made them well.  All the things that Jesus could not do in that place, others - strangers - could.  

Go out in pairs.  Preach repentance.  Cast out evil.  Lay healing hands upon the sick.  Pray for spiritual and emotional wellness in those  you meet.  And if they don’t want to listen to you, don’t push it.  Don’t insist they must listen.  Go away, and pray that someone else will be able to get through.  

There’s a lot of focus on doing things in pairs in scripture.  God created humans as a pair.  Noah rescued animals in pairs.  Even Moses was given Aaron as a helper.  Only the greatest prophets went out by themselves to speak God’s truth to the people and do deeds of power - Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah.  In the New Testament, also, the apostles and evangelists typically went around two by two.   And those who didn’t often landed in serious trouble.  Again, the martyrdom of Stephen comes to mind.  As far as we know, he was alone out there, preaching to people who did not want to hear it.  Which is not what Jesus told his disciples to do.  Go in pairs.  If they don’t want to hear you, leave.  Even Paul always had companions with him.  We aren’t given specific reasons for doing things two by two, but sometimes we hear hints of those reasons in Paul’s letters.  If two people are together preaching the Good News, maybe they won’t wander off into questionable theology as they might were they alone and unchecked.  In his letters, Paul often cautions his churches against individuals who come behind him and preach and bring different understandings of who Jesus is and what it means to be Church.  And of course, there’s safety in numbers.   

Going out in pairs and groups is still a matter of safety.   One person alone with no witnesses as to what occurred in private, might be accused of crossing boundaries.  And that’s a big deal, especially in this time when people are becoming more willing to say, “Me, Too”.  As a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am required to take classes every  year about boundary issues of all kinds - sexual, social media, financial, cultural sensitivity, racism - to help keep any of these things from becoming an issue here. This is why I don’t want anything to do with the church’s money.   And it’s why my office door stays open, why I very rarely meet privately with anyone I don’t know really well unless others are nearby.   In many congregations, pastor and elders alike are encouraged to visit in pairs, not alone.   For when there are two or more together, even if one of them is misunderstood, the other is there to witness what actually happened.  It keeps both the visitor and the person being visited safe.  We are the Church.  The safety of everyone we come in contact with - physical, emotional, and spiritual - is important.  Far too many have been abused in one way or another by their church - by their pastor or by others in the congregation - and that should never happen.  But when it does happen, it should not be tolerated.    

We are Christ’s disciples, sent out to heal, and to carry the Good News.  We know that there are many who have contempt for the church, because what they know of Church is that they have been hurt, or people they love have been hurt.  If we are to heal those people, we need to be able to demonstrate that we are not the thing they are familiar with, that they are contemptuous of.  We need to be able to show them not just by our words, but by the way we live our lives, that we have faith that the God who created them, and us, loves each person equally.    If we are to carry the Good News to them, we need to be able to show that we also love them, as we love ourselves.  That we believe God can heal them of the injuries that have been done to them, of the heartsickness that afflicts them, if they will let Him.  When we go out from this place, let us be the Good News.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Matching Gifts


Scripture   2 Corinthians 8:7-15   

8:7 Now as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you--so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something-- now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has--not according to what one does not have.

13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

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It was about the year 50.  The church in Jerusalem was experiencing extreme persecution.   Many had scattered, getting far away from the city, but others remained.  We don’t know for sure what it was like, but we can assume that life was pretty difficult for Christians in Jerusalem.  If they were known to be Christ-followers they were considered blasphemers, and in Jerusalem, blasphemy could get you stoned to death.  The Church was kind of underground at that point, and known Christians needed to keep their heads down, because those who didn’t  - well, the martyrdom of Stephen comes to mind.   Christians in Jerusalem were living in poverty, and Paul wanted his churches in Asia to help.   Even though they were far away from Jerusalem - some 1,250 miles, about a 3 month walk - Paul wanted the Christians in Corinth and in the other cities where he had started churches, to take up collections for the poor of Jerusalem which he would then deliver.     He didn’t say, “Let’s go to the Dollar Tree and gather things they will need because they are poor.”  He didn’t say, “Gather up your extra stuff and give it to me so I can take it to them.”   He didn’t say, “Make a collection of all the non-perishable food items you can find, and I will make sure they get food.”  He didn’t even say, “Let us send our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem our thoughts and prayers.”  He said, “Give money.  There is a great need for money.” 

He said, don’t give so much as to impoverish yourself.  Because then they would have to take up a collection for you, and that’s pretty much not what we are aiming for.  But give what you can afford, over and above what you are already giving to your congregation.  If you are eager to give, and I know you are eager to give,  let your giving match your eagerness, out of what you have, not out of what you do not have.   Let your giving match your eagerness . . . let your eagerness to help and your money be matching gifts.  

No one told Paul he had to take up a collection for Jerusalem.  He didn’t get a directive from the church leaders back in Jerusalem.  He just thought it would be the right thing to do. Maybe because he had been an instrument of their persecution himself at one time.  Although that would really only be a compelling reason for him to give personally, and not applicable to all the Asian churches.  According to some scholars, the idea of the Gentiles supporting the Jewish Christians, the people who had sent Paul to them in the first place, not as clients, but as equals in God’s eyes, was pretty radical.  In those days, gifts tended to be either sort of required tribute from client to patron or rewards from patron to client - both of which would be made very pubic.  The idea of sending a gift without expectation of reward or some concrete sign of approval was totally counter cultural.  Sort of like Job’s faith in our message last week.  He freely gave God the gift of his faith even without reward, even when everything was going wrong - which is not at all what was expected of him - except by God, of course.  God expected this, because God knew Job’s heart.  He accepted Job’s faith as an act of worship.  

In Paul’s mind, the act of giving is an act of worship.  When you give, when you help someone who needs your help, then you are worshiping God.  The offering we receive on Sundays is not simply one of the many ritual things we do during worship, like lighting candles and singing.  According to Paul it is one of the necessary aspects of worshipping God, a heartfelt human response to God’s grace and blessing.

A heartfelt human response to God’s grace and blessing.  It is what happens in your heart when you hear of a family losing everything in a fire, or a city being destroyed by a hurricane, and you say, “How can I help?”  Even if you don’t have much yourself, you still want to know, “How can I help?”

If you are on Facebook you may have seen a post about financial difficulties in this church.  Just so you know, this week the budget team met, and said  “We have no savings left.   Sunday offerings are lower than we had hoped.  Payday is Friday, and we can’t pay our staff. And even if we come up with the money for this paycheck, we won’t make the next one.  What shall we do?”    We started throwing ideas around of ways to raise money and ways to save money.  If we have your email address you’ll get an email soon with the list of fundraising ideas and a request to either help out with one or more of those, or to give us your ideas.   A list of recommendations will be given to the Board at the next meeting which include some staff cuts.  If the Board agrees, two paid positions will become volunteer positions, and two will have their hours cut in half.  If you are on Facebook, you may have already heard some of this.   Meanwhile, this payday, one person declined their paycheck, and two others are holding theirs until after today’s offering is deposited in the bank.   

So can we talk about churches going through difficult times?  Can we talk seriously about money without y’all going all, “They only ever ask us for money” on me?   One of the reasons that we are in the current situation is that maybe we don’t ask for money as intentionally as we should.   Yes, we have a stewardship moment every Sunday, and I spend all of October preaching about stewardship, and all those messages usually goes something like “It is good to give of your time and talents and money.”   And it is good to give of your time and talents.  Most of the work of the Church is done by volunteers - people who give of their time and energy and creativity to feed the hungry, rescue dogs, help the homeless, decorate the sanctuary, take care of church business by serving on Boards and committees, praying with those who need prayer, visiting the sick, teaching our children, taking meals to shut ins, singing in the choir, presiding at worship, repairing things that need to be repaired . . . all of the oh so many things that are part of the mission and ministry of the church are done by people who give unstintingly of their time and abilities.  We use supplies which can be donated by anyone - copy paper and toilet paper and soaps and candles.  

If we were a house church, like the churches in Corinth and Antioch and Rome and Jerusalem, that would be all we needed - time and talents and some donated items.   But we’re not a house church.  I don’t know anyone in this congregation with a house big enough to fit all of us on a Sunday.  So we have a big, beautiful building.  And along with that building come PG&E and CalWater and Waste Management and property taxes and insurance and business licenses . . . and salaries.   And those things require cash money.   PG&E doesn’t barter.  CalWater does not accept thoughts and prayers.  Donations of food won’t pay my student loans.  There is a great need for money.

We, as a congregation, are facing some hard times and hard questions.   We want to build a new building - a wonderful new building where everyone will be able to come in and worship, where we can open our doors to all kinds of people and help agencies, where we can truly be Christ’s hands and feet, making the Good News more accessible to everyone.  But first, we have to get through our current difficulties, and finding the best way to do that may be harder than we like.  There will almost certainly be sacrifices to be made. So we need to pray, all of us, for discernment going forward.

One of the things I have said before - and that Paul said way before me - is that your giving should not make it harder for you to pay your own bills, and buy your own food.  Some of you really don’t have any money to give.  Again I say, you can only give out of what you have, not out of what you don’t have.  Let your eagerness to help go toward helping out at fundraisers, or encouraging others.  The time will come when you can, and that is all we can ask.

But if you can increase your giving by even one dollar a week - that one dollar really would make a difference.  It’s a roll of stamps or a case of copy paper.  If you typically give only when you attend and you aren’t going to be here one week, consider putting aside the money you would give if you were here, and bring it with you next time.  Consider making your church offering part of your monthly bills - and when you write the check or money order or whatever for PG&E, write one for First Christian Church at the same time.   Whatever you give, let your eagerness to help match your giving, so that your gift is an act of worship, a heartfelt response to God’s grace.  Let your eagerness to help and your money be matching gifts.  

My brothers and sisters, never forget that everything we have belongs to God.  The gifts and talents that we use when we volunteer to do God’s work in the world come from God.  The education and abilities that we use to earn the money to live on come from God.   Even the faith that we have, that all will be well, that with God all things are possible - even our faith comes as a gift from God.  So when we give, no matter what we give, we are simply giving back what already belongs to God.   Let us stand and sing together, We Give Thee But Thine Own.