What We Worship: Sermon for October 5, 2014

Recently I heard a story about Ruby Bridges. In 1960 she was a six year old African-American girl in New Orleans who had the unenvious task of desegregating a formerly all-white elementary school. You may have seen pictures of her. A little girl walking into school surrounded by tall US Marshals.

As she walked to school each day protestors yelled at her. One grown woman would say that she was going to poison her. Another held up a black doll in a coffin. And when she got to school all but one of the teachers walked off the job and refused to teach her.

"Adoration of the Golden Calf" - Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

“Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

The one teacher who did stay taught Ruby that whole year. And at the end of the year she asked Ruby a question. She had noticed that when Ruby walked through the crowds she talked to herself, repeating something over and over. And so this teacher finally asked her, “What were you saying?”

I’ll come back to that story, but first let’s look at today’s story from the book of Exodus. Over the last two months the lectionary has brought us a lot of readings from this book about Moses leading the people out of Egypt and towards the promised land. They are familiar stories. The Burning Bush. The Passover. The parting of the Red Sea. And today is no exception; you have probably heard about the Golden Calf.

The people have been journeying in the wilderness for a while now. And Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai by God to receive Ten Commandments. But the people don’t know that. They just know he’s been gone a long time. So long that they start to worry is he never coming back.

So Aaron, Moses’ brother who is left in charge while he is gone, gets scared. He wants to calm down the people who are getting panicked. And so he has all of them bring him their gold, and he melts it down and makes a giant gold cow. And he shows it to the people and says, “this is your god, who brought you out of the land of Israel.” And the people respond by worshipping before it, bringing offerings, and having a feast. It’s only when Moses comes back down the mountain, alive and angry with them, that they stop.

It’s easy to identify with Moses here. It hadn’t been so long ago that God had brought the people out of Egypt. It wasn’t so long ago that the Red Sea was parted. They should have remembered that. And they should have recognized that this golden calf, this brand new statue that had been set in front of them, had nothing to do with it.

So we get why worshiping a gold cow is so ludicrous. It’s easy to think they were just plain foolish. But here’s where Scripture works its trick. Because sometimes we think the truth is so obvious that we would never fall into the same trap as the people in the stories. But sometimes we have more in common than we think.

This isn’t really a story about a gold statue of a cow. This isn’t really just a story about the Israelites. This is a story about all of us, and about what we choose to worship. And, most of all, it’s about what we put in God’s place when we are afraid, or uncertain, or lost, just like the Israelites were.

In theological terms, the Golden Calf was an “idol”. An idol can be an object, like a statue of a cow, but it doesn’t have to be. An idol is just anything that we put our trust in instead of God.

So, sure, a golden calf seems silly to us now. But is it really any more so than some of the other things we worship? Money? Power? Sex? A big house? A nice car? Maybe none of these things are bad by themselves, but when we start to attach our ultimate meaning, and our hopes for salvation, on them, that’s when they become a problem.

The Israelites were trying to get somewhere. They had left everything they knew behind, and now they were lost in the wilderness. And the guy who said he knew where they were going, the one with the direct line to God, was gone. And it didn’t look like he was coming back. And so, they took matters into their own hands.

We do the same things. We all have our own Golden Calves. We find ourselves lost. Or full of fear. Or searching for meaning. And when we feel the most scared, or alone, or uncertain, we build ourselves false idols, things that we think will make us feel better, but rarely do. And that’s because we turn to idols when our fear overtakes us, and we lose so much hope that we stop turning to God.

In the best case scenario our idols only destroy us. But taken to their extreme, our idols can destroy not just us, but those around us.

At the beginning I was talking about Ruby Bridges and the teacher who had watched her repeat something over and over to herself while protestors were tormenting her. At the end of the year she asked the little girl, “what were you saying”? And this six year old replied that she was praying. She was repeating over and over to herself the prayer her mother taught her to say while the protesters yelled at her: Forgive them, God, because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Now, that’s an amazing story of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you might wonder what that has to do with idolatry. For me, it’s this. The people who were yelling those horrible things at Ruby were, at their core, afraid. They had been given this false idol of racial superiority couched in “the way things have always been” for their whole lives, and now it was being taken away. And they were so scared of losing it that they lost their humanity entirely and terrorized a small child. I’m sure many of them were even Christians, and yet, their fear and hatred drove them to stop seeing a child as beloved of God and to instead love their idol even more.

Some would say that six year old Ruby Bridges had every reason to hate those people who hated her. And yet, with the help of the adults around her, she somehow didn’t. Every morning she walked through a hell that most of us never will, and somehow refused to build a false idol of hate or anger. She didn’t give the people who hated her that power. She refused to live in their fear. Instead, she put her trust in God, and ultimately that trust carried her through and gave her hope.

You and I, hopefully, will never face anything like she did. And yet, we will know what it is to be afraid. We will know what it is to forge ahead on a new path. We may even know what it is to live with the fears of others. And when we do we will be tempted to create our own golden calves, our own little idols, to protect ourselves.

But we have another option. In fact, we have the only option that will keep us from letting our fears destroy us. We have God. And we have the assurance that worshiping anything else will never save us. It will just destroy us from the inside out.

And so we have a choice. Do we worship our fears? Or do we instead bless the possibilities?

As you know, today after church we are having our annual blessing of the animals. I was a little worried about preaching about the Israelites worshipping the golden calf on the day we were blessing the animals. I thought it might look like we were trying to recreate the scene out front.

But, of course, we are not worshipping them. Instead we are blessing them. And when we bless something, we are not worshipping it…we are putting it in its place, and asking God’s blessing upon it.

Churches typically do this blessing of the animals on this first weekend in October because it is the closest to the Feast of St. Francis, who was known to be a lover of animals. He saw in them evidence of God’s work in creation, and he blessed them as good. We in the Protestant traditions don’t view saints the same way our Catholic brothers and sisters do, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t look to them as examples. And St. Francis is a fascinating example of someone who wanted to shed all the false idolatries of the world and look only for evidence of God’s presence, even if that evidence came covered in fur or feathers.

There’s a story about Francis that I love, that also reminds me how important it is for those of us who are Christians to keep our eyes on the prize, and off the idols. The story goes that Francis attended a lavish dinner with other members of the clergy. Inside the tables were heaped with food and drink, paid for by the church, and everyone was having a great time.

Except right outside the doors of the banquet hall, people were starving and begging for food. And so, quietly, while others feasted, Francis put only a few breadcrumbs on his plate. And he quietly began to eat them as everyone else ate from the feast. And when they finalized realized what was happening, they stopped too. And they realized that they had been distracted from what they really wanted to be. And they shared the feast with those outside.

To me that story is about putting aside our idols, our distractions, clearing our vision and choosing instead to focus on what really matters. It’s about letting go of our golden calves, and choosing God instead.

In the end, Francis and the bishops found they couldn’t serve Christ until they focused on the people outside their door. And the Israelites found that they couldn’t go to the promised land until they left the calf behind. They could have remained there, with the idol they made for themselves. But they would have been stuck there. They never would have become what God intended them to be.

And in the end, we can’t find the promised land until we leave our idols behind. No matter what they are, and no matter what fears or insecurities created them, we will never manage to move until we let go of the distractions that don’t matter, and cling for dear life to what does. Only then will we ever find what we are truly seeking. Only then will we have hope. And only then will we be given the wondrous privilege of being used by God to bless the world. Amen.

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

Journey Through Advent – Day 8

Copyright, United Feature Syndicate

Copyright, United Feature Syndicate

I’m a big fan of Christmas movies and specials, which is ironic because I’m not a big TV and movie watcher the rest of the year. Every December, though, I cycle through my favorites: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Emmet Otter, and the list goes on…

Last night we had friends over and we watched A Christmas Carol (the Muppet’s version, of course). And as I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge play out, I thought about the theme of the second Sunday in Advent: peace. In the course of the story, Scrooge goes from a man disconnected from any sort of spiritual concern for others to one who finds peace and joy.
This transition isn’t unique to one story. George Bailey finds peace in the end. So does Charlie Brown. Even Buddy the Elf’s mind is finally at ease. There’s something about Christmas that makes stories of losing hope and finding it again all the more special.
This time of year many people live with depression or anxiety or grief. The holiday season can make what is usually manageable seem particularly unbearable. We don’t talk about that much in the church, but we should. Because if ever we had a message of peace, it’s now in Advent.
For me, the “peace” that we talk about the second Sunday of Advent is akin to the serenity that Reinhold Niehbur wrote about in his well-known prayer. It’s a quick reminder this time of year that even when the world around us makes no sense, and even when we feel powerless in the face of the odds, peace is buried deep inside of us, a peace that Christians believe comes from Christ’s love for us all. It’s not a bad prayer for today. Actually, it’s not a bad prayer for any day:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

Sermon for February 27, 2011: Lilies, Sparrows and You.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

6:34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I have this recurring dream. Maybe twice a year I dream that I get a letter from my high school. The letter tells me, “You didn’t actually graduate”. It turns out that there was some requirement that I overlooked and the school didn’t catch it until now, and I have to go back. In the dream I argue that I actually have a college and seminary degree now, but they tell me if I don’t finish this high school class those will be rescinded as well. I always wake up panicked and trying to figure out whether or not it really happened.

I’m told it’s not an uncommon dream. Another favorite of mine that a lot of people seem to have is finding out that you have an exam in a class you haven’t been to all semester. And it’s always something like German. Something you can’t even try to fake it on.

When I have dreams like this, I pay attention. Because I know when I have them, it means there is something else going on in my life that I am getting really anxious about.

We are get anxious. It’s part of what it means to be human. We worry about our family. We worry about work. We worry about money. We worry about all the details of our days. And by the end of this sermon, you will still worry about these things. But my hope is that you might worry a little less.

Jesus is still preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He’s been at this for a while now if you’ll recall the last few weeks. And today he is talking about worry and fear and anxiety.

Jesus tells the disciples a few things. First he tells them that they cannot serve two masters. They cannot simultaneously serve God and serve wealth. They cannot set those things as equal and work towards both at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, and Jesus tells us the only choice that makes any sense is God.

Jesus goes on to say don’t worry about what you will eat. Don’t worry about clothing. Don’t worry about what you will drink. Because worrying will not add a single hour onto your life. Instead, trust that God will provide. Trust that the God who takes care of the birds, the God who puts the lilies in the field, will care for you even more.

I think we’re all prone to anxiety. Some of us even more than others.

I was a very anxious kid and that continued as I got older. In high school, I worried about getting into college. In college I worried about getting into seminary. In seminary I worried about getting ordained. And then I worried about what I would do after I was ordained. I spent so much time worrying about the specifics of my future that I often missed the beauty of what was going on around me. I often missed the lilies in the fields, or the birds in the air. And when I finally got to that place I’d been trying so hard to get to, I felt like I had run a marathon.

More of us are like that than we like to admit.
If you are anything like me, you want to know exactly how the future will unfold. You want to know what everything will look like. You want to know that you will have not only everything you need, but everything you want.

When the hospice I was working for had to make cuts, I knew that they would have to cut chaplains. I know I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. I was basically prepared. First they cut one chaplain and gave me her territory to cover. And then, one morning, they cut me.

I was pretty terrified. I wasn’t long out of grad school, so I had no real savings to speak of. My transfer to the UCC was still is process so I couldn’t take a church yet. And no other hospices were hiring. Even non-ministry positions were overrun with a glut of applicants. I had no idea what I was going to do.

But I got through the year. And that’s not a testament to my thriftiness or anything like that. That’s a testament to what God was doing in me, and how much I had to learn to trust God. Because the more I learned to trust that God would provide for me, somehow or another, what I needed next, the more I felt my faith deepening. I began to feel God in ways that I never had during that year.

I really do hope I’m never in that situation again. But, in other ways, I’m grateful for having been there. Because as I searched for a call that year, I had a feeling that God was truly guiding me to something I did not yet understand. That God would make a way. That God had a plan and it would be revealed in time. I knew that being laid off would not have the last word. God would.

There is a story of the earliest Christian monks who were in Ireland. They used to build boats and put them on the sea, and then ask God to take the boats to the place they needed to be. They would let God be their navigator, and they would trust that their boats would be safely brought to shore.

While I don’t recommend the same course of action to you, there’s something to be said for that.

There’s something to be said for the idea of putting your boat on a stormy ocean and saying, “okay God…show me where you want me to go.” There’s something to be said about that act of faith in a sea of fear.

What would it mean for you to get in a boat? What would it mean to cast yourself out on the seas and see where God could use you? What would it mean even for our church to get in a boat and let God direct our journey? Would our life together look the same? Look different? I don’t know. But I think it may be worth asking.

I’ll close with this story that I heard about four years ago, and which has become integral to my faith life. I heard it told by a Gene Robinson, a bishop who had faced threats of great violence. He had been called to be a bishop and in the aftermath there had been great division. He had to celebrate worship in some places with a bullet proof vest under his robes because of all the death threats. Yet, his quiet, certain faith was so apparent to all who saw him. He told this story. Some of you have heard me tell it before, but it’s worth telling again.

Robinson talks about the parting of the Red Sea. He recalls the movie “The Ten Commandments” and how in that telling we see the sea parted wide from shore to shore. The Israelites are able to pass through quickly, always knowing they will make it safe to the other side.

Except, he says, it wasn’t really like that. Instead, Robinson argues, the sea only parted a little bit at a time. Someone put their foot in and the waves rolled back just enough for them to put another foot down. And then they did. And the sea retreated a little more. Little by little, step by step, they made their way across the sea. And finally they made it to the other shore. They did not know exactly how things were going to turn out. But they knew that God was with them in the next step.

Jesus tells us not to borrow tomorrow’s trouble. We have enough today. Instead we can pray earnestly and with faith, “Jesus show us the next right step.” And we know that he will. And we know that in God’s love there is always a safe shore waiting for us. Amen.