Sermon: Seeing God in Others

Seeing God in Others

June 22, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                                     Pentecost + 2

Scripture: Exodus 4:10-17 (MSG)

10 Moses raised another of his objections to God: “Master, please, I don’t talk well. I’ve never been good with words, neither before nor after you spoke to me. I stutter and stammer.”

11-12 God said, “And who do you think made the human mouth? And who makes some mute, some deaf, some sighted, some blind? Isn’t it I, God? So, get going. I’ll be right there with you—with your mouth! I’ll be right there to teach you what to say.”

13 Then Moses said, “Oh, Master, please! Send somebody else!”

14-17 God got angry with Moses: “Don’t you have a brother, Aaron the Levite? He’s good with words, I know he is. He speaks very well. In fact, at this very moment he’s on his way to meet you. When he sees you he’s going to be glad. You’ll speak to him and tell him what to say. I’ll be right there with you as you speak and with him as he speaks, teaching you step by step. He will speak to the people for you. He’ll act as your mouth, but you’ll decide what comes out of it. Now take this staff in your hand; you’ll use it to do the signs.”

Mark 3:1-6 (MSG)

1-3 Then Jesus went back in the meeting place where he found a man with a crippled hand. The Pharisees had their eyes on Jesus to see if he would heal him, hoping to catch him in a Sabbath infraction. Jesus said to the man with the crippled hand, “Stand here where we can see you.”

Then he spoke to the people: “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best? Doing good or doing evil? Helping people or leaving them helpless?” No one said a word.

5-6 Jesus looked them in the eye, one after another, angry now, furious at their hard-nosed religion. He said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” The man held it out—it was as good as new! The Pharisees got out as fast as they could, sputtering about how they would join forces with Herod’s followers and ruin Jesus.

Prayer

Draw us close, Holy Spirit, as the scriptures are read and the Word is proclaimed. Let the word of faith be on our lips and in our hearts, and let all other words slip away. May there be one voice we hear today — the voice of truth and grace. Amen.

Our Experience

The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies will always be known as the team that suffered one of the great collapses in sports history. They let a huge division lead slip away by losing ten games in a row at the end of the season. Despite the collapse, the Phillies season had its share of memorable moments, including a perfect game and a ninth-inning home run by a Phillie to win the All-Star Game.

But the most remarkable moment of the entire season occurred after a game, not during it. Clay Dalrymple, a Phillie pitcher, was asked to assist a blind girl who had requested a chance to walk out on the field. Dalrymple took the girl to home plate where she reached down and felt the plate. Then they walked to first base, second base, and third base before ending up at home plate once again.
While Dalrymple was showing the girl around the bases, he never noticed that the fans remaining in the stadium had stopped to watch him and his companion. He just assumed that the silence in the stands meant the fans had gone home. But when the two of them finally reached home plate, the ballpark erupted. Dalrymple was shocked by the applause. When he looked up, he saw thousands of fans giving him a standing ovation.
Later, Dalrymple told a Sports Illustrated reporter, “It was the biggest ovation I ever got.” 1

Can we imagine what it must be like to be so absorbed in doing a good thing that we could tune out thousands of people surrounding us?  This is often how God behaves towards us; all we have to do is pay attention; to stay tuned.  Now, there are times when staying tuned is hard, even devastating.

Our Experience Expanded

Another illustration. Guy Henry tells this story:  This past summer I went to Wal-Mart for some supplies. I quickly did my shopping, but the people I was with were there more for browsing purposes so I had some time to kill. I wandered off to the men’s department, and started to compare prices on various sock deals. There was a lady nearby looking through a rack of clothes (all right, there were LOTS of ladies looking through the racks!) I hadn’t paid her any notice until I heard a commotion in her direction. Onto the scene burst a little girl about eight years old.

“Oh Mother,” she said out of breath,” Look at this dress!” She was holding a long black dress, still on its hanger.
This was far more interesting than comparing the varieties of socks, so I was watching this typical interchange.
“Do you LIKE that dress?” her mother asked calmly.
“Oh, I LOVE it, I absolutely love it,” the little girl cried out.
“Do you WANT that dress?” her mother asked.
“More than anything!” she said excitedly.
The next words that came from the mother’s mouth almost caused me to collapse to the floor. She said, “That dress is for a pretty little girl.” She paused. Then she said, “And you are NOT a pretty little girl. Now put it back.” And she returned to browsing the clothes rack.
I stood there amongst the socks in shock. I am not very emotional, but there were tears in both of my eyes after witnessing this scene. It wasn’t the cruel words uttered by the mother that bothered me most; it was the reaction of the child. If she had stomped her feet and said, “I can’t believe that you said that!” I would have felt a little better. Perhaps her mother was having a real bad day, a spell of bad judgment. Instead the little girl’s smile vanished, her shoulders dropped, and she turned and left, probably to hang the dress back up. That told me that she had heard this sort of thing before, probably often. 2   And we have to ask why a parent would ever act like that. How could a child’s mother fail to see beauty in her own child?  How could she fail to appreciate the goodness and worth of her own daughter? Such cruelty is indeed difficult to absorb, explain and certainly we cannot possibly be expected to appreciate it.  Even at our worst we are assured that God sees something good about us, something worth saving in us.  Many stories in scripture illustrate this for us.

Our Traditions

Moses from our text this morning is one. There is always Moses and what a character he was.  God had certain expectations of Moses and Moses for a host of reasons couldn’t seem to live up to them.  And we can go back even further in scripture for other examples.

It all started with Adam and Eve. They sinned against God and they tried to hide from God. Out of fellowship, broken, marred by sin they try to cover up. Moses tries to protect his insecurity by refusing to speak. Saul tries to hide his low self-esteem by hiding in the baggage. He tries to conceal the void he felt spiritually. He hides his face, wears a costume so that he can visit the witch and try to find spiritual answers. His successor, King David, also fails miserably.  He attempts to hide his killer lust by killing Bathsheba’s husband. His son continues the act. Solomon tries to conceal his lack of intimacy by surrounding himself with a 1000 concubines; relationships designed to hide his lack of relationship. In Isaiah the nation of Israel boldly admits to its desire to cover up when they say, “We have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves.” We all cover up. We all hide. We all conceal. We don’t want anyone to see our doubt, our pain or our lack of self-esteem.  This legacy can be traced throughout Scripture. It occurs over and over again from Genesis to the Gospel of Mark.         Jesus comes into contact with a man with a withered hand. Now it was obvious to everyone that the man had a disability. His hand was withered. Something strikes me as interesting in this account though. When Jesus speaks to the man and commands him to stretch forth his hand the man stretches out his withered hand. Why didn’t he stretch out his good hand? You may think that is stupid, but that is exactly what we do.  We try to cover up the things in our life that stink or the things that are broken or at least the things we perceive to be less than perfect.  Remember what Mary and Martha said to Jesus when He wanted to uncover Lazarus? “But Jesus, he has been dead four days.  By now he stinks.” Yes, but the only way to get life again is to uncover what stinks. Jesus is always trying to uncover the stinky things in our lives.

It is only human to try and cover up our shortcomings. Do we not respond to the Invitation to Discipleship after every sermon because we want everyone to think that we have it all together? Do we decline to worship with no inhibition or fear because we don’t want anyone to see our withered condition? Like the withered hand, or the outrageous remarks of the mother to her little girl in WalMart, or Clay Dalrymple so engrossed in a little blind girl that he is totally unaware of his surroundings, yet it appears to be obvious to everyone around us doesn’t it? How many of us are totally oblivious to the obvious? We truly think that we have God and everyone else fooled. But just as obvious as the man’s withered hand was to Jesus our issues are apparent to him as well.
I want to declare this morning that we can stretch forth our good hand, our good side, our good act, our good façade all we want and we will never be healed, never be free, never be whole. If the man had stretched the other hand out I don’t believe he would have been healed.

Re-mything Our Traditions

Margaret Slattery, in her book Living Teachers, tells of a community in which a stranger came to settle and to engage in the practice of law. He immersed himself in his legal work; and when he was sometimes seen walking at the eventide, he walked alone, with his head down, and with the look of mental distress upon his face. One day he confessed to an artist who had a studio in the town without going into the details that he had made one sad and terrible mistake in his life. The artist said nothing, but parted from him and went into his studio. Weeks afterward, the artist invited this melancholy and dejected lawyer to come in and view a portrait which he had finished, telling him that it was his masterpiece. The man was surprised and pleased that his judgment should have been sought by the artist, but when he went into the studio to view the portrait, he was surprised to see that it was a portrait of himself, only now he stood erect, with his shoulders thrown back and his head up, ambition, desire, and hope written on his face. Regarding it in silence for a few moments, the man said, “If he sees that in me, then I can see it. If he thinks I can be that, then I can be that man; and, what is more, I will be.” 3 Whose ultimate responsibility is it to see God in others?  Ours and ours alone. It is a high calling.
I am going to close this message with an old puritan prayer.  May it be our prayer? Let us pray:
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, thou hast brought me to the valley of vision where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights. Hemmed in by mountains of my sin, I behold thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess everything, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive.
Lord, in the day times, stars can be seen from deepest wells and the deeper the wells, the brighter the stars. Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death, thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin, thy riches in my poverty, thy glory in my valley in Christ’s name. Amen.

________________

1 Clay Dalrymple tells a story to Chris Potter Sports on You-Tube

http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/dont-look-but-gods-looking-at-you-jimmy-haile-sermon-on-confidence-168051.asp

3  http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/dont-look-but-gods-looking-at-you-jimmy-haile-sermon-on-confidence-168051.asp?Page=2

Sermon: Receiving the Spirit, June 8, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                                   Pentecost Sunday

Scripture: Acts 2:1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Prayer

Perplexing, Pentecostal God, you infuse us with your Spirit, urging us to vision and dream. May the gift of your presence find voice in our lives, that our babbling may be transformed into discernment and the flickering of many tongues light an unquenchable fire of compassion and justice. Amen.

Our Experience

My roommate in seminary was a young woman named Georgia. Georgia was in her mid thirties working as an office manager when the call to ministry took her by surprise. When she got her first church she was fine with program planning, working with volunteers, even leading small groups, but preaching scared her to death. When I lived out in the Reseda she was serving a church out in the Antelope Valley so we would meet at various coffee shops out on the 14 freeway, have breakfast and then do exegetical studies of the scripture text together for her next sermon.

Now scarrier than familiarity with scripture for Georgia was the whole idea of getting up in front of a room full of people and saying something that was from God that could change lives.  Georgia, in spite of her seminary training, hadn’t planned on doing that, but as God would have it her call to this particular ministry included one sermon a month!  She would be so nervous the week before she could hardly function. She’d get up on Sunday and look out over the congregation. Everybody sitting in their section “like season ticket holders” she’d say. The adult ladies Sunday school class section, the rowdy teenagers section, the men who would rather be out playing golf section and the young parents with children section. Georgia thought of them as “the Crayola section,” because the kids spent the worship hour quietly drawing pictures and coloring in their children’s church bulletins at a small table in the back of the sanctuary. They would draw the soloist’s beehive hairdo (with bees), the dove on the banner hanging in the chancel, their take on the plants in the courtyard; whatever they saw they drew.
Georgia was so nervous about preaching that she resorted to prayer. Every day for 20 minutes she would do creative visualization prayer. She would picture herself preaching with Jesus standing next to her with his arm around her shoulder. Every single day! She told me one day, “Annie, it wasn’t a magic cure, but each time, preaching got a little more bearable and a little more bearable, degree by degree. Then one day it actually seemed kind of fun for a few seconds. I am making progress.”

One Pentecost Sunday I visited Georgia’s church and I was standing in the back of the sanctuary following worship waiting for Georgia when a young mom came up with her daughter, Ashley. I knew about Ashley because Georgia had told me that she was seven and she was painfully, painfully shy. Her mom said, “Pastor Georgia, Ashley has something to show you.” Georgia knelt down to be at eye level and Ashley held out her children’s bulletin. She said, softly, “Look at what I drew today. Here is you, Pastor Georgia. And guess who this is.” She held up another piece of paper smeared with bright blue finger paint with all kinds of squiggly lines in it.  Pastor Georgia looked at it and exclaimed as the best of us do that it was a beautiful blue picture!  Ashley put her hands on her hips, stamped her foot and said, “Pastor Georgia.  I finger painted the Holy Spirit for you!”  That was the day that Ashley came out of her shell and Georgia learned to trust her own ability to preach God’s word.

Our Experience Expanded

Today is Pentecost Sunday as I explained so eloquently in German during our time with children this morning. It is the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the flames of the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. As they received the Spirit they were able to speak in languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in our culture to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if we look at the Pentecost story, we find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages.

The Pentecost story also reminds us that witnessing to Christ can involve being surprised. Actually, it is about being radically transformed like Ashley by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost also tells us that we cannot sit back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

Our Traditions

According to Diana Eck “It is clear in the New Testament that the Spirit is a gift, not a reward.  The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, often depicted as a dove with wings outspread diving downward toward him, comes before his initiatory period of testing in the wilderness, not after it.  In most initiation sequences, one would expect the order to be reversed; after testing and trial, one is confirmed with a new cloak of blessing.  But the empowerment of the Spirit is not earned, it is freely given.  And so with the early church at Pentecost, it was not their courage or clarity that evoked the blessing of the Spirit, for they were vulnerable and confused.  The Spirit is a gift, not a possession.  The Spirit inspires and gives breath of life to the church, but the church does not encompass, contain, or own the Holy Spirit. . . it is the Holy Spirit that drives us beyond the comforts and certainties of what we know.” 1

So what does it take to be a Pentecost church in urban Los Angeles in 2014?

Re-mything our Traditions

I did some homework on this and this is what I found:  First, a Pentecost church today has a social media presence.  I perused 10 very diverse church websites, I read several articles on church growth, I also went back and read the report we got when we participated in the New Beginnings study here at St. Paul’s and I concluded that a presence in cyber space was decidedly number one.  Now the articles acknowledged the overabundance and over-reliance on social media of our younger generations: Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community. Indeed!

But there was also consensus that social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread our message. If we were to talk to our Generation X and Millennial young folks, they would probably tell us that the days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

How many of you have checked out St. Paul’s website?  Has it been helpful to you?  Have you read any of my sermons which are posted on it?  Have you looked at the pictures?  Have you “friended” us on Facebook?  Have you asked your friends and family members who live in faraway places to “friend” us?  One picture or message posted on a Facebook page with 100 people ”liking” it has the potential to reach 1000’s of people.

The second manifestation of receiving the Spirit according to my research is getting out into our community.  Our Evangelism and Social Justice Ministry Team has been working on this, but there is plenty for all of us to do with this.                                                                   Without a doubt St. Paul’s is one of the warmest congregations in the world when people step inside our doors. But for the vast majority of our community, we are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and those of us who did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to us, we have to figure out how to go to them. How do we get involved in the Baldwin Hills or Baldwin Village communities? We could host events like concerts and lectures. We could invest in ministries of hospitality and make our building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. We could host AA meetings. We could make sure that every homeowners group and every Neighborhood Watch knows that our Fellowship Hall is available for their regular access. I know that historically we have hosted scout troops and tutoring programs. This is more than just being a landlord. The Pentecost Spirit is telling us to be a gracious host. Sharing our building through ministries of hospitality can indeed be a service we provide to the community.

But more importantly, we have to go outside of our doors. We need to be involved in community celebrations and let folks know who we are and where we attend church. We could serve lemonade and cookies over there at the bus stop on the corner of La Brea and Coliseum. I’m guessing that some of us have children or grandchildren who play on a soccer or Little League team we could be supporting and sponsoring! I am sure that there are more than ample opportunities to volunteer at Audubon Middle School (although I’m sure it involves being fingerprinted!). When we visit Bob Engleton at his assisted living facility do we also offer words of encouragement to other patients and their families or the staff of that community? Have we been in touch with his daughters to see if there is any kind of support they may need? We have a wonderful network of black Presbyterian churches to work with, but maybe there are other churches in the community that we could be coalescing with. Whatever it is, we have to find out what matters in our community and then figure out a way to contribute. We can’t serve a community that we don’t know and love. St. Paul’s has been on this corner since 1949 so we have a vested interest in the life of this community.                     Now, the third item on my list of attributes for a Pentecost church is a reminder that some of the people we hope to attract to St. Paul’s did not grow up in the church so when we recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology at a particular point in the service every Sunday, there may well be those in our midst who have not a clue as to what this is all about. How does a visitor know when to stand or when to sit during the service?  And now we have two hymnals, as if finding our way through one wasn’t challenge enough. Is it always understood when we serve communion that all are welcome, and is it clear that we are using grape juice and wine (an important consideration for many)? Are you sitting next to a visitor?  Is there some helpful information or guidance you could afford them?

I took our fourth aspect of being a Pentecost church from the blog of Rev. Emily C. Heath who is a United Church of Christ pastor. 2 This involves our openness to being transformed. I am going to share a secret with you this morning: bringing new people into the church is going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconsciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And St. Paul’s will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We like to think of St. Paul’s as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though we may have been here thirty years and they have been here one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It is wonderful to know our history; in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t always done it “this way”, but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, just like Georgia and Ashley speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when young families arrive with their kids, we must let them teach us about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday school models might not work anymore and our Parish Education Ministry Team is taking that on. When young adults come, we need to be open to letting them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather than for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask if this is how God is leading us into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Toward the goal of establishing not only these four hallmarks but other marks of a Pentecost church as well, I am proposing for us a new mantra: It is “yes, if. . . not no because.” This is a great recalibration of our mindset from the negative to the affirmative.  It is no longer “We’ve tried this”, or “That won’t work here because”, and, my personal favorite, “We’re different”.  “Yes, we can reach that intended goal if…” now becomes the substitute for “No, we cannot do that here because…”.   “Yes, we can plan an exciting future for St. Paul’s if…” now becomes the substitute for “No, we cannot do that here because…”.  This is like learning a new language, it is about attitudinal adjustment, it is transformational thinking.   It is a great way to put our fears into a new light.  So “Yes, if. . . not no because!”  3

I close with a remarkable quote from Brennan Manning “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to and then receive openly the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.” 4  Amen.

Prayer

Great God, may this day be a new Pentecost — a day in which you will pour out your Spirit and put a new heart within us; a day in which our faltering spirits will be revived, and our enthusiasm will be renewed; a day in which you will equip us for service, and send us out to change your world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

  1. 1.        (Encountering God:  A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, p. 134)
  2. 2.       (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/how-to-be-a-pentecost-chu_b_5462067.html)
  3. 3.       http://www.leanhealthcareexchange.com/?p=782
  4. 4.        Brennan Manning 1934-2013 at http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/pentecostabc.html

Sermon: Prayerfully Present, June 1, 2014

June 1, 2014

Ascension Sunday

Scripture: John 17:1-12 Message

17 1-5 Jesus said these things. Then, raising his eyes in prayer, he said:

Father, it’s time.
Display the bright splendor of your Son so the Son in turn may show your bright splendor.
You put him in charge of everything human so he might give real and eternal life to all in his charge.
And this is the real and eternal life:
That they know you, the one and only true God,
and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.
I glorified you on earth by completing down to the last detail what you assigned me to do.
And now, Father, glorify me with your very own splendor, the very splendor I had in your presence before there was a world.

6-12 I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me.
They were yours in the first place; then you gave them to me, and they have now done what you said.
They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that everything you gave me is firsthand from you, for the message you gave me, I gave them;
and they took it, and were convinced that I came from you.
They believed that you sent me.
I pray for them.
I’m not praying for the God-rejecting world but for those you gave me,
for they are yours by right.
Everything mine is yours, and yours mine, and my life is on display in them.
For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world; they’ll continue in the world While I return to you.
Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred as a gift through me, so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind.
As long as I was with them, I guarded them in the pursuit of the life you gave through me; I even posted a night watch. And not one of them got away, except for the rebel bent on destruction
(the exception that proved the rule of Scripture).

Prayer

Come, Holy Spirit, come to us in this time and place, in the reading of these words and in the preaching of this message. Come to us when we sit in silence and when we are moving too fast. Surprise us, revive us, and shape us into the Body of Christ. Amen.

Our Experience

            The elevator in my condo building is less than reliable and this is after tens of thousands of dollars in repair work and new parts, even a total rebuilding of it several years ago.  It is a very intuitive elevator! It always seems to break down when I have six loads of laundry to haul down three flights of stairs to the basement. I also recall being in the elevator when it made an unscheduled stop between floors. It only takes a few seconds for major anxiety to set in when I am trapped in a really confined space, (I absolutely cannot go spelunking) but fortunately for me the hold-up was temporary and there was as lovely phone operator to keep me company  while I waited to be rescued by the fire department.                                            When I find myself trapped in small, enclosed places, or feeling overwhelmed, or panicked or in a hurry and there are circumstances way beyond my control I usually find myself confronted with three different voices in my head:  the voice of judgment, the voice of cynicism or the voice of fear. “OK, why is this happening to me?”  “This is just wonderful!” and “Who is going to believe that I actually got stuck in an elevator? I mean, really?”  Sometimes when all the forces of evil all line up I could swear my trio of voices sings in three part harmony.

My Voice of Judgment kicks in and immediately blocks the gate to my mind. I can just hear it slam shut. This is the voice that passes judgment on the people and events surrounding the discussion or the experience at hand. Now the really astounding thing about my voice of judgment is that it often represents ideas and thought patterns that are oppositional to my own point of view. The judgment voice may sound something like this: “These elevator repair guys have been out here weekly for months to fix this elevator!  Why can’t they get it right?  How hard can it be to fix an elevator?”                            My Voice of Cynicism clogs the arteries to my heart, almost closes them down completely.  This voice is engaged in the emotional act of distancing me from whatever uncomfortable situation I may find myself. It stops me from becoming too vulnerable. It sounds something like this: “It certainly is a good thing Jesus didn’t need to rely on this elevator for his ascension!  He never would have made it.”                                            My Voice of Fear totally obstructs my freedom. It seeks to prevent me from letting go of what I am holding on to for dear life and from living out God’s best intentions for me and who I am. It seeks to protect me from my own insecurities, from being ostracized, from being mortified by some glaring error or oversight. It sounds something like this, “What if no one ever finds me in here?  What if this elevator goes crashing to the ground?  What if the fire department can’t pry the doors open?”

Our Experience Expanded

For the purposes of my message this morning I am going to extend my stuck in the elevator analogy to St. Paul’s.  A number of you over the past five years have said to me that St. Paul’s feels stuck.  That is a word I have heard a lot.  More recently, however, I have picked up on what I would call a sense of urgency related to St. Paul’s future.  Now I am hearing, “What is going to happen to us?”  “What will we look like in three years?  Five years?”  “Are we capable of making the changes that need to be made for us to survive?”  “What do we have to do to attract the next generation to St. Paul’s?”  “Who is going to step into our shoes and keep this place running?” and frequently I hear, “What if we can never afford a full time pastor again?”

Yes, the elevator is wedged in.  It is somewhere between floors, or maybe it won’t go to the floor that we want to be on, or it isn’t leveling itself when it lands on the top floor and people are tripping as they try to get in or out, or the doors won’t open on the first floor, but they will open on the second floor, so we end up taking the stairs after all.  With a deep appreciation for the 105 year history of this congregation we recognize that when the elevator was first installed it worked fine!  It wasn’t until they computerized it that we started having trouble with it.  What do you mean we need a new motherboard?  Didn’t they do that when it was down for three months being overhauled?

Our Traditions

My cynicism not withstanding Jesus didn’t have to put up with mal-functioning elevators. He could get where he needed to go under his own power.  He actually rose up away from the pull of gravity. He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of the disciples’ sight. Even after Jesus had disappeared, they kept gazing up toward heaven, until suddenly two angels in white robes appeared and asked them, “You, Galileans, (which by the way was a putdown – the angels might as well have called them all hicks!) why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Now, that seems a silly question. Wouldn’t you stand looking up toward heaven if you had seen Jesus rising up? Maybe we remember another time when two angels appeared, two angels in dazzling clothes who stood beside the women who had come to the tomb on Easter morning. Those angels, too, had asked a question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It must have seemed an absurd question to the sad and heartbroken women for they had NOT come to the tomb looking for the living.                                                           Jesus, like St. Paul’s, doesn’t seem to be where he’s supposed to be. He was not in the tomb, but risen and gone to Galilee. Then, later, Jesus is no longer on earth, but risen beyond the clouds, beyond human sight. So it does seem that to be with Jesus means to be somewhere other than where we are now. Even if we don’t believe heaven is up there, we still find ourselves looking up beyond the pull of gravity. We who dance and climb and run, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news, we are waiting to be surprised by Jesus’ hands over our eyes and a voice saying, “Guess who?” But don’t we have to rise above the ground floor, above the pews in this room, above this tired and weary body? How can we enter the pure life of the Spirit to be for Jesus what he wants us to be as a church?

Re-mything Our Traditions

Jesus had big plans for his disciples after he was gone and his send off was to pray for them. And I feel strongly that God has a plan for St. Paul’s.  It is up to us to discern just what that might be.  But how do we do that?  Do we all get to have a say in what the future will look like or will it be up to our session and deacons to decide?  What about all the work we did with the New Beginnings?  How will we know if we are on target, doing what God wants us to do and becoming what God wants us to be or merely doing what we think God wants us to do?                                                                     What is the difference between group decision making and authentic communal discernment? Group decision making typically involves a cadre of people or leaders who are individually invested in particular outcomes, who come together to iron out and resolve their differences, often to represent the good of the whole. I expect to encounter this later this month when I attend our General Assembly in Detroit for a week. By contrast, authentic communal discernment requires sincere and committed prayers, people who are unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes. To move from deciding to discerning, we must free ourselves from inordinate attachments. We must assume an indifference to anything but the will of the divine One as discovered collectively by the group; setting aside matters of ego, politics, personal opinion, and vested interest. We begin the process of discernment with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that always underlies a group discernment process.  This is a path along which anyone who wants to participate is invited.                                                              We all know a lot of stuff, some of us have advanced degrees, some of us have been lifelong teachers and school principles. So how do we adopt a stance of unknowing? After all, how can we be indifferent or unknowing and plan any kind of future for this church? We start with prayer.  We begin by fine tuning our own personal prayer lives and building up our own personal discernment muscles.        We start by silencing those voices of judgment, cynicism and fear and we pray daily, “Thy will be done!”                                   I distinctly remember going through a period of time where praying was difficult for me.  It just wasn’t satisfying or even helpful. I described it back then as a “dull thud.”  I sought the help of a spiritual advisor who told me to journal for one week about my prayer life. When I returned she looked briefly at my journal and then she asked me who I prayed to and, of course, I said God.  She looked at me and said, ”A tree or a refrigerator could answer your prayers.”   And then she asked me if I truly believed that prayer changed things?  Jesus tells his disciples to think big for Him, to be bold for Him, to do courageous work in His name, and, yet, there was indeed a part of me that didn’t totally believe His promises. I had to face it!  I came to realize that often my prayers were a desperate attempt, a last resort, in a particular situation in my life, and more likely than not, I had an agenda, even if it wasn’t verbalized.  My spiritual director told me that I had to release my voices of judgment, cynicism and fear if I hoped to have any kind of quality prayer life.                                                                           The journaling was important and I don’t know if any of you are currently doing this, but my spiritual director instructed me to begin with prayerful silence, followed by writing from the perspective of each of my three voices. She had assigned me five different passages of scripture and this eventually framed what she called a “dialogue topic.” Once a topic had been established then I was instructed to adopt the voice of judgment with regard to the topic and to write only from that voice for a period of 5 minutes. I would then take a brief rest and then repeat the exercise assuming the voice of cynicism, and finally the voice of fear. When the writing exercise was completed she would lead me through a guided meditation, inviting the Divine to release me from each of the voices. This would be followed with a period of silence.  Now, this exercise went on for several weeks before I could truly grasp its importance and begin to pry loose  in what I had often taken pride.                                                    We can never fully release ourselves from the vested voices in our head, but I experienced a remarkably different frame of mind having completed this exercise.  When I was more prayerfully present, I became more likely to function on both a day to day and a spiritual level with a discerning head and heart.                                                                 If St. Paul’s is going to continue its legacy of witnessing to Christ on the corner of La Brea and Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA, it will be because we prayed it into being, not because we willed it into being.                               So I must ask, “How is it between God and the faithful at St. Pauls?”  I want you to answer these questions quickly, off the top of your head, without much thinking about your answers, but by just reacting to them:            Yes or No:  It is OK to try and manipulate God with our prayers? //  Our intentions are good and there is so much work to be done.                                Yes or No: Persistent prayers, day by day prayers, are more successful than prayers prayed ONLY when things get tough or bad?                              Yes or No: (1) Does prayer really change things? (2) Do we really believe that moving mountains is God’s specialty? // What if God doesn’t always move them in the way we want, think or pray?                                  Yes or No: Is your prayer life meaningful and growing? Are you bold in your prayers?                                                                                    Yes or No:  Do you expect results from your praying? Or do you think “it’s fixed” and nothing will change, no matter how much you pray?                          Yes or No: That need in your life, that burden you are carrying, do you just not pray about it because you think nothing can be done about it?     Yes or No:  Is prayer important? // Jesus prayed for hours that God’s mind would change and the cross could be avoided, but God said “No” to Jesus. Jesus didn’t hesitate to pray, to let His request be known to God.        Yes or No:  Are there some mountains in your life that need moving?        Yes or No: Are you carrying burdens around that only God can move?   Yes or No:  Is God big enough to help us turn off our voices of judgment, cynicism and fear and show us a plan for the future of this church? How big, then is our God?                                                                     Are we ready for big?  Are we ready for anything or anyone God sends our way?  There was a sign on a elevator door in Brittain that reads   Capacity: 9 persons max, 1000 kg., 1 horse,  5,050 bananas; 6,666 hens eggs; 2,941 pigeons; 88 haddock; or 10,526 pound coins.  Now, I am quite sure that I don’t want to get on an elevator that has been occupied by 2,941 pigeons, but if through prayer we discern that this is God’s plan, then who am I to question it?  Amen!

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, keep us from getting bogged down, held down, kept down. As you have risen and ascended, so may we. As you have overcome death and the grave, so may we. As you have gone home to God, so may we. Lift us, we pray, to your love and your glory that we may be with you forever and ever. Amen.

 

Sermon: Running on Empty May 11, 2014

Mother’s Day

4th Sunday of Easter

Scripture:  23RD Psalm

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
    he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.[g

Prayer

Living God, help us so to hear your Word that we may truly understand; that, understanding, we may believe; and believing, we may follow your way in all faithfulness, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do. Amen.

 Our Experience

Have you ever been really scared? Maybe it took an illness to scare you, a notice that your job had been eliminated, a phone call from the police in the middle of the night, or a letter on the kitchen counter that said, “I’m not coming back.” We speak sometimes of being scared stiff or paralyzed with fear, but as a pastor I’ve noticed that most people react to fear by running, running like crazy. It doesn’t matter where we run, what we use for fuel, how many fences we have to jump or what we try next. We just have to keep moving like those police chases on TV cop shows.  You know where the cops are standing there with their guns drawn and they shout at the suspect to stop and he or she just keeps on running.  Why do they do that?  I call it “running on empty.” The late psychologist Rollo May has written, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”

This is how we get into real trouble — by panicking and then running when we are lost. It is under this kind of pressure that we make the worst mistakes with relationships, family and work. The same could be said of churches, schools and governments. Not convinced that God is leading us to green pastures, we veer off course, try a short cut or run like terrified sheep often following each other right off the nearest cliff. It is not a pretty sight!

You already know how I feel about being referred to as one of God’s sheep. One of God’s soaring eagles, sure! Or maybe even a cunning tiger for Jesus. But, no! Sheep are dumb! They scare easily, and they have a knack for getting lost. Sitting here this morning on the corner of La Brea and Coliseum all decked out for Mother’s Day most of us don’t look lost, but the Psalmist would no doubt take issue with my assessment.  He would be so bold as to point a finger at one or two of us who have lost our way in a relationship that offers more hurt than love, or he might give a wink to someone here this morning in a job that leaves them depleted and spent, or he could send a knowing glance to someone in the throes of guilt for not feeling good enough, pretty enough or smart enough.

Some of us may have gotten lost in our battles against declining health. Others of us are lost in grief. And how many of us are simply lost in our shame for things done or left undone or some stupid remark made when we did indeed know better?  Some of us have tried so hard to find ourselves that we’ve lost sight of who we are, who we were created to be.

Sometimes we are lost because life really is bigger and “badder” than we are.  Sometimes things happen to us that we have little or no control over.  Sometimes those still waters turn into torrents of raging white water rapids and somehow we were not prepared.

Our Experience Expanded

The following was written by one of my favorite theologians, Erma Bombeck for Mother’s Day in 2010. 2   I think her use of humor brings a clever understanding of how God guides us down a particular unanticipated path:

Most women become mothers by accident, some by choice, a few by  social pressures and a couple by habit.

This year, nearly 100,000 women will become mothers of handicapped children. Did you ever wonder how these mothers of handicapped children are chosen?

Somehow I visualize God hovering over earth selecting His instruments for propagation with great care and deliberation. As He observes, He instructs His angels to make notes in a giant ledger.

Armstrong, Beth: son; patron saint, Matthew.

Forest, Marjorie: daughter; matron saint, Cecilia.

Rutledge, Carrie: twins; patron saint . . . Gerard. He‘s used to  profanity.

Finally God passes a name to an angel and smiles.

Give her a deaf child.

The angel is curious. Why this one, God? She‘s so happy.  “Exactly,” says God. “Could I give a child with a handicap to a mother who  does not know laughter? That would be cruel.”

“But has she patience?” asks the angel.

“I don‘t want her to have too much patience, or she will drown in a sea of self-pity and despair. Once the shock and resentment wear  off, she‘ll handle it.”

“But, Lord, I don‘t think she even believes in you.” God smiles. “No matter, I can fix that. This one is perfect. She has just enough  selfishness.”

The angel gasps. “Selfishness? Is that a virtue?”

God nods. “If she can‘t separate herself from the child occasionally,  she‘ll never survive. Yes, here is a woman whom I will bless with a  child less than perfect. She doesn‘t realize it yet, but she is to be  envied. She will never take for granted a spoken word. She will never consider a step ordinary. When her child says ‘Momma‘ for the first time, she will be present at a miracle and know it! When she teaches her child about a tree or a sunset, she will hear it as few people ever realize my creation.”

“I will permit her to hear clearly the things I hear: ignorance, cruelty,  prejudice and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I  will be at her side every minute of every day of her life, because she is  doing my work as surely as she is here by my side.”

“And what about her patron saint?” asks the angel, pen poised in midair.  God smiles.  A mirror will suffice.

Our Tradition

As people of faith the 23rd Psalm has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. Most of us have this psalm committed to memory. It was the go-to passage for Connie Gomes’ memorial service. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are to some degree also in Jewish territory. It is always wise for us to remember the nature of the Jews’ tumultuous history with God.

They were a people who were called Israel, which means, “those who have struggled with God.” They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto or get back to. They struggled for peace, for food and for a future. Most importantly, they struggled with their faith in God.

The Hebrews longed to live with God as sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard. They were too afraid to keep believing that this shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them. So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, which always led them into unmanageable trouble and laments for the salvation of God. Then they would return, come back together and engage in worship where this same story was told and retold.

So it is not surprising that so many of the psalms describe the churning, disruptive experience of being lost and found, judged and forgiven, sent away and brought back. It is all a part of the misery of people who get scared and lose their way while running on empty and of the high drama of a God who searches high and low to find the lost sheep.

So maybe this means that the last thing we ought to be doing is rushing to the 23rd Psalm to be reminded that everything is OK. We’re drawn to the images of green pastures, still waters, an overflowing cup and a banquet table set in our honor because we strive for equilibrium, security and abundance. We don’t particularly care for the highs and lows of Israel’s history, the people’s insatiable thirst on long desert treks, or their maddening love affair with God. It all sounds a bit reckless to us.

Besides, most of us can make it to the green pastures on our own. Of course, they are never quite green enough, but that only makes us work harder to be our own saviors and even more terrified that we never quite pull it off.

Re-mything our Traditions

Frederick Buechner makes these comments about 9/11:

On the evening of the day the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, a service was hastily improvised in one of the largest New   York churches, where crowds of both believers and nonbelievers came    together in search of whatever it is people search for at such times–some word of reassurance, some glimmer of hope.

“At times like these,” the speaker said, “God is useless.”

When I first heard of it, it struck me as appalling, and then it struck me as very brave, and finally it struck me as true.

When horrors happen we can’t use God to make them unhappen any more than we can use a flood of light to put out a fire or Psalm 23 to find our way home in the dark.

All we can do is to draw close to God and to each other as best we  can, the way those stunned New Yorkers did, and to hope that,    although God may well be useless when all hell breaks loose, there is  nothing that happens, not even hell, where God is not present with us and for us. 3

The key to discovering this salvation is seeing with a clear eye the “Thou art with me” part.  That is how David survived the valley of the shadow of death when he was on the run from Saul, and it is the hope that rises out of the rubble of collapsed towers in New York. Believing God is with us is how relief workers make it through another day of caring for the homeless in Afghanistan, and how huddled Christians continue to worship in countries where Christians are persecuted. It is even how middle-class Americans survive jobs they don’t like but can’t afford to leave because they need them to support families.

We must keep asking ourselves “What is the source of our fear, our discouragement?”  Is it fatigue?  Are we tired and burned out?  Are we doing too much?  Are we bored, are we not doing enough? Is it physical tiredness or is it emotional? Rick Warren says, “When you’re physically or emotionally exhausted, you’re a prime candidate to be infected with discouragement or panic. Your defenses are lowered and things can seem bleaker than they really are. This often occurs when you’re halfway through a major project and you get tired.”  4   I know that I get frustrated.  I have all these unfinished projects that seem to pile up and I get a feeling of being overwhelmed.  Or I’ll be knee deep in doing something I am really excited about and there will be an unexpected interruption that totally diverts my attention.

And don’t you just hate it when your best laid plans all fall apart or a deal you were really banking on falls through. My big fear is throwing a party and having no one show up!  I don’t know where it comes from but it is there.  Have you all bought your carpet or flooring squares yet?  As someone said, “Just when I think I can make ends meet — somebody moves the ends!”

And let us face it, fear walks with each of us. Fear is behind more of life’s difficulties than we’d like to admit. The fear of criticism (What will they think?); the fear of responsibility (What if I can’t handle this?); and the fear of failure (What if I blow it?) can cause a major onset of the blues.

So what does Psalm 23 tells us to do:  (1) Rest our bodies and our souls. That is how we fill our tanks so that we don’t have to run on empty.  If you need a break take one! Burning candles at both ends does not create twice as much light.  It just burns up the candle twice as fast.

Being discouraged, feeling bad or fearful doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing the wrong thing. It may just be that we are doing the right thing in the wrong way. (2) The psalmist would suggest that we try a new approach. Shake things up a little. Have dinner with an enemy!

We must also discipline ourselves to avoid the not-Ok feelings: the discouragement, the blues, the fear.  Jesus taught us to fight back! As people of faith we have the grace to smile through the tears.  Losing a loved one will be a part of who we are for the rest of our lives but it doesn’t have to define us; having been abused as a child can inform the choices we make forever, unless we deliberately decide not to let that happen. Hurting someone else or being hurt by someone else requires forgiveness and we control that. Feeling discouraged can be a choice. If we feel down, overwhelmed, and yes, even sad is it because we’ve chosen to feel that way or is life just a whole lot bigger than we are at the moment? No one is forcing us to feel bad. (3) So the Psalmist tells us to hang on! Do what’s right in spite of our feelings. No feeling lasts forever. We only need ask God for strength. God can give us new energy. There’s incredibly motivating power in faith. There it is again — the churning, disruptive experiences of a people who keep discovering that their only hope is in the Shepherd who is always the closest thing to them. 5  Amen.

Prayer

Great God, your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Thank you that we can live in your light and walk in your truth. May the things that you have revealed and our own thoughts dwell in our hearts and stir us to action. We ask all this in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

 

 

Notes___________

1 http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/rollo_may.html

2 May 9, 2010 – Mothers of Disabled Children                                                                                        

   3  Frederick Buechner’s excerpt on Disaster from Beyond Words

4  http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/BibleStudyAndTheology/Discipleship/Warren_Discouragement.aspx                                                                        

   5 http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2249  (Craig Barnes)