Sermon: August 24, 2014

Sermon                                                                                                       August 24, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture: Roman 12: 1-8

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Prayer

God of love, open our hearts to each other. Give us the courage to resist oppression. Help us protect the world from evil. Give us the wisdom to see ourselves as we truly are. Give us the vision to see you and hear your voice.
Give us the courage to answer your call. Grant us the endurance to use our gifts for the purpose of your realm. Work your transforming love within us
that we may know your will and serve you with joy. Amen.

Our Experience

  • On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man was seen on a cell phone video being choked to death by New York City police with what appeared to have been excessive force, ostensibly for selling single cigarettes.

 

  • On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, a 17-year-old African American boy in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot in the back while holding his hands in the air indicating that he was unarmed. Both killings were perpetrated by white police officers.
  • In November 2012, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African American resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was killed by Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, for playing his music too loudly while sitting in a car. Dunn was convicted of attempted murder. He was not convicted of murder due to a hung jury. The “Stand Your Ground” defense was used in the Dunn case.

 

  • In July 2012, Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old African American who was handcuffed in the back of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is alleged to have shot himself in the head with a concealed weapon (while handcuffed). Questions remain as to the validity of police reports in Carter’s alleged suicide.

 

  • Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old African American man on a subway platform in Oakland, California. He was apprehended by police and shot dead while in custody on January 1, 2009. The white police officer was exonerated after saying he thought he had pulled his Taser.

 

  • Just two days after Michael Brown died in a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., another unarmed young African-American man was shot and killed by police here in Los Angeles. According to a statement released by the Los Angeles Police Department, 25-year-old Ezell Ford was stopped by two uniformed officers on Aug. 11. The officers attempted to speak with Mr. Ford, but police say he continued walking and made suspicious movements, including trying to conceal his hands. When the officers tried to stop him, police say, Mr. Ford “turned, grabbed one of the officers, and a struggle ensued,” during which both fell to the ground. Police say Mr. Ford tried to grab the gun from an officer’s holster, prompting the other officer to fire his weapon and the policeman on the ground to fire his backup weapon. The officers handcuffed Mr. Ford and paramedics took him to a hospital, where he later died.  According to Ezell’s mother he had a history of mental illness.

        The litany goes on and on. These high profile cases leave very little confidence in a rule of law or its capacity to examine the facts fairly and prosecute particularly white police officers for murder. So residents of Ferguson, Missouri, engage in what began as a peaceful resistance movement to demonstrate their deep anger, fear, and frustration over what they perceived to be one more police-killing of a young unarmed African American male.                                       

Our Experience Expanded

The killing of these and other African American males seems to be trapped in legal standards that justify such violence by giving persons the right to defend themselves with excessive force, even when it seems unwarranted. On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury exonerated George Zimmerman, a mixed-race man, of all charges related to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The George Zimmerman trial and verdict brought to the forefront the “Stand Your Ground” law which, in principle, gives a person the right to use deadly force in self-defense if he or she feels that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.[1]                                                                                 It is not enough for us as Christians to be appalled or sad while viewing what has happened the past two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri. And it cannot be thought of as a place beyond our own reality. I quote from J. Herbert Nelson’s blog on our Presbyterian Washington Office website:

        We must be clear that the issues of this shooting are deeper than       anything one trial can resolve. Yes, it is about the shattered hopes of a family that has lost a loved one, a loss which will reverberate for     generations. But it is also deeply and truly about the social sin of        prejudice, bigotry, and institutionalized racism, which is imbedded in    our social structures, our justice system, and the laws by which we   claim to offer freedom to each other. [2]

Our Traditions

Paul assures us at the end of our scripture passage from Romans this morning that “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”  These words sound so common sense, so practical, so down to earth.  They make sense and yet we cannot seem to figure out a way to make them live or work or have being.            One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of diversity!  Diversity was built into God’s original creation. We are the way we are (black, brown, white, yellow) by design.  Contrary to the first creation story we find in Genesis, God did not make just one white dude and then stop.  God filled the world with people of different cultures and races, who speak very different languages and eat different kinds of foods.  Some live in tents some live in houses.  Some ride camels and some walk.  It is a part of our DNA to be different and as Paul points out it is also part of who we are to be relational, to be part of a community, to be loved by others.  Just imagine what life would be like without those we love in it!                                   The idea of race and the concept of racism are strictly social constructs.  A surgeon removed Veronica’s gallbladder two weeks ago. He performs the exact same surgery he performed on Veronica on an Asian man or an Indian woman.  As human beings we may exhibit external differences –curly hair, slanted eyes, paler skin– but that is all cosmetic, in every other aspect we are identical.  It is our bodies, our inner selves that dictate our humanity.  What did our lesson from Paul say? For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

Re-mything Our Traditions

I found these words in the 1998 PC(USA) policy “Facing Racism:  In Search of the Beloved Community”,

        “. . . indeed the entire Christian community, must recommit to the      struggle for racial justice. Churches must provide a moral compass for         the nation by getting involved in shaping public policies that will move       our nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation. As we stand on        the verge of a new century, racism remains resilient and resurgent.    While the social policies and pronouncements of denominations   continue to     emphasize inclusiveness and justice, these do not translate        in the hearts and minds of Christians who participate in the electoral    and political process. Christians are passive in the face of attacks on    affirmative action and the adoption of regressive social policies at the     local, state, and national levels. There is a growing awareness that a         new understanding of racism is needed that takes into consideration    the centrality of power in the institutionalization and perpetuation of       racism. There is also an awareness that the methodologies that   brought us to where we are will not take us where we need to go in         the next century. If we are to build on past accomplishments, we must do a new analysis of racism within the current context of the nation.   This will inform the direction we must take in the next century and   provide guidance as to how we might get there.[3]

 

Sixteen years later gun violence permeates every aspect of our society. Thirty-thousand people are killed in the United States each year by guns. Young African-American men are disproportionally represented among intentional shooting victims. [4] When the shooter is a police officer, who is expected to be the symbol of safety and security in the city and to be trained to limit the use of force—our mourning and concern are deepened and demand justice.                                                                        This is a statement released last week by CLUE states:

“Those whom society gives license to wield violence must be held to    the highest standards and the closest scrutiny. Violence must be         deployed only as the absolutely last measure after all other avenues       have been exhausted. When these guidelines are abrogated, swift punishment must be meted out so that the community does not labor         long under the impression that there are “differing weights” and         “differing measures,” nor be given to think that African American lives      are worth less than others.”  [5]

It is difficult for some of us to view police officers as perpetrators of gun violence. Many of our historic views of police are shaped by “Officer Friendly” [6] and/or the sacrificial efforts of first-responders during the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, let us not forget that police are human beings who face the same fears, uncertainties, struggles, pains, prejudices, and frailties as every other human being. Their jobs are demanding and accompanying pressures from home and other parts of their lives may not always be neatly compartmentalized. They leave for work every new shift with no guarantee that a call they take that day might not find them confronting an angry young man with an assault weapon like the two officers this past week in San Bernardino.

The fact remains that each time a law enforcement officer or anyone else for that matter fires a gun a potential act of gun violence occurs. Press reports indicated that Michael Brown was unarmed and walking away from the officer with his hands raised in the air when he was killed. If these news reports are correct the police officer murdered a 17-year-old boy. And if the news reports about the handing down of used military equipment to local police departments doesn’t make our blood run cold, I’m not sure what would.

St. Paul’s is a body of believers, a community of Christ. We are also a part of a greater community that is riddled with violence; a metro urban complex of people and problems brought about by poverty, broken families, failed education, an out of order mental health system and generations of neglect, hopelessness and despair. J. Herbert Nelson states that “We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must become proactive in calling people together to address the violence that is evidenced in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, (and I would add southern California) each time a person is killed in whatever community. The epidemic of deaths due to gun violence in our country – 30,000 per year – is representative of a war zone every day. Community cannot be built with the threats of extreme force and military-grade weapons. Community is established through respectful dialogue, intentional relationship building, and interpersonal engagement. We must demilitarize our local police forces.” [7] 

So what do we at St. Paul’s do about this?  (1)  We stop denying that this is not our problem.  Yes, I totally understand that I am preaching to a primarily African American congregation, but not only do you live with the vulnerability of being black in an often volatile world, but every one of us  harbors attitudes of racism, prejudice and contempt towards others — Hispanics, Asians, the homeless, the mentally ill.  We must work deliberately to let those prejudices go!                                                                            (2) We must educate and train ourselves to understand that maybe there are other ways to see the world.  We do not have to resign ourselves to the belief that we are powerless even though we may often feel totally overwhelmed by the world around us or that we are safe and this does not affect us. We must also forgo the embrace of stereotypes.

(3) And then we set a goal for ourselves of not seeing race or color.  Yes, we can certainly recognize the differences in others, but we must no longer give it the power to destroy or dictate bad or violent decisions.  One way to do this is to put ourselves in others shoes.  What does Baldwin Village look like to Dayja’s friend Marilyn who has lived there all her life?  What does Dayja’s life in Santa Monica look like to Marilyn and vice versa?  What does putting on a Kevlar vest to start your work day as a police officer feel like?   What kind of psychological impact, if any, does it carry with it?  What must it feel like to grow up in the US as an African American male?                  And (4) we give our gifts, we share what we have and what we are with others. Paul reminds us that we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.  How much do we have to reciprocate to make up for or just break even on that kind of generosity?  If our gift is prophecy, it is in proportion to our faith. That means BIG faith, BIG prophecy and conversely little faith, small prophecy.  If our gift isministry, then it is through ministering that we are fulfilled and the love of God reaches others. It is through our ministry that the world becomes a better place, or not. . . Ahhh, teaching!  How many teachers do we have in this congregation?  And trust me, even if you have retired from the profession, the gift is still with you. And we have a room full of exhorters! In exhortation, in sharing our opinions, our concerns, our doubts, our fears, our hopes our faith and our dreams, we realize God’s plan for our lives.  And if your gift is that of the generosity, and you know who you are, know that it is appreciated. Paul also includes the gift of leadership, but he adds a vital characteristic of leadership: diligence. To that I would add conscientiousness and carefulness – not in hedging our bets which I preached about a couple of weeks ago, but in kindness and tenderness. Paul wraps it all up with the gift of compassion exhibited in, of all things, cheerfulness. What a difference a laugh or a smile can make!  How, as the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God, can we make our world a better, safer place?  Only by sharing our gifts.

Prayer

I have within the past couple of years discovered the novelist and poet Wendell Berry.  I find reading his poems and essays can help me make sense out of the craziness that sometimes bombards my life.  I am going to share with you his poem The Peace of Wild Things, as I close my message this morning:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free. [8]

May it be so for all of us!  Amen.

_______________

[1] “In the United States, stand-your-ground law removes a duty to retreat from the elements self-defense. The concept sometimes exists in statutory law and sometimes through common law precedents. “Stand Your Ground” laws effectively extend the Castle Doctrine to any place someone has a right to be. Forty-six states in the United States have adopted the castle doctrine, stating that a person has no duty to retreat when their home is attacked. Twenty-two states go a step further, removing the duty of retreat from other locations. “Stand Your Ground”, “Line in the Sand” or “No Duty to Retreat” laws thus state that a person has no duty or other requirement to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant. Under such laws, there is no duty to retreat from anywhere the defender may legally be. Other restrictions may still exist; such as when in public, a person must be carrying firearms in a legal manner, whether concealed or openly.” Definition cited from the Wikipedia article, “Stand-your-ground law,” accessed on Aug. 20, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stand-your-ground_law.

 

[2] http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/

[3] See Facing Racism: A Vision of the Beloved Community, approved by the 211th General Assembly (1999) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), developed by the Initiative Team on Racism and Racial Violence. Available for download at:http://www.pcusa.org/resource/facing-racism-vision-beloved-community/

[4] See e.g. Moore DC, Yoneda ZT, Powell M, Howard DL, Jahangir AA, Archer KR, Ehrenfeld JM, Obremskey WT, Sethi MK. Gunshot victims at a major level I trauma center: a study of 343,866 emergency department visits. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2013 Mar 3;44(3). 585-91.

[5] http://www.cluela.org/

[6] “Officer Friendly is a model program to acquaint children and young adults with law enforcement officials as a part of a community relations campaign. The program was especially popular in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it continues in some police departments.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Officer_Friendly

 

[7]  http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/

[8] by Wendell Berry

 

Sermon: August 3, 2014

Sermon:  Hedging Our Bets                                                  August 3, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                   Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 14:13-21 The Message (MSG)

Supper for Five Thousand

13-14 When Jesus got the news, he slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place to be by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick.

15 Toward evening the disciples approached him. “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.”

16 But Jesus said, “There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper.”

17 “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said.

18-21 Jesus said, “Bring them here.” Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed.

Prayer

Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Make us hungry for this heavenly food, that it may nourish us today in the ways of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen.

Our Experience

Last week on NPR they did an interview with Rachel Howzell Hall, the

black writer and author of a series of crime novels, the latest of which is titled “Land of Shadows” featuring police detective Lou Norton.  Rachel was born and raised across the street from St. Paul’s in “The Jungle”.  Ten years ago she was diagnosed with a very rare form of breast cancer and she was pregnant.  Today she is alive and well and the mother of a very vibrant 10 year old daughter.  Her attitude about life changed as she came to grips with being a cancer survivor, the author of five best selling books and a mother.  In the course of the radio interview she stated that she no longer “hedges her bets.”         It’s all about living life to its fullest for her.                                   I had already started to think about my sermon for this week when I heard the interview with Rachel and this made me consider differently Jesus’ directives to his disciples; to think about this story from Matthew’s Gospel in a different way. I started to wonder about the motives of Jesus.  I wondered if he was just messing with his disciples, trying to trick them or catch them off guard?                                                                                               Then by extension is he trying to disrupt our sense of tidiness, decency and order; our penchant for cause and effect. The disciples were indeed thinking linearly. Their approach was practical. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” The disciples were hedging their bets. The place was deserted. There is no food for miles around.  It was late. It was time to go home. They were done here. What more do you want? Come on now, Jesus. These people need to fend for themselves.       You could probably mouth the words with me!                                                  Before us this morning is a major lesson in discipleship, Discipleship 101, to be exact. This is what I love about Matthew’s gospel. Discipleship is from the get-go. Jesus expected his follows back then and us today to give our very best, all the time, even when faced with impossible situations and yes, discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What we will be asked to live out, to do for others and when may just be a miracle itself. 1   What was that expression stapled to our bulletins a couple of weeks ago?  Yes, if. . .  not no because!

Our Experience Expanded

There is no just getting by with Jesus. Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather be looking out for their own needs, to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. Using words and actions foreshadowing the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and two fish.” Whatever the initial skepticism, or doubt, or hedging of bets, or self-preoccupation, the disciples were caught up in Jesus’ words of abundance and gratitude and they begin to distribute to these thousands of people what they have and in so doing they participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.                                 And that miracle continues. When a college-grad shuns a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between; miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading from Matthew.                                 Because the real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to rely on us to care for them. What does it say in our very own mission statement?  “We are the hands and feet of God.  We are the only Jesus most folks will ever meet.”  Just think about that.  I want each of you during this coming week to take notice of God working through you or another family member or a friend or a co-worker or a total stranger to care for the vulnerable. Then I want you to bring back those miracles to this worship service next Sunday and during the Call to Discipleship I want two or three of you to stand up and share what you saw or felt or experienced this week. Are a couple of you willing to do that?                                                                                                                 Following my message this morning we are going to share communion together and I probably don’t need to point out the similarity between the scenes from our scripture lesson this morning and Jesus sending his disciples off to feed thousands. We have been fed by God’s heavenly food and in response it is expected that we will go and do likewise, sharing God’s love with all we meet and especially with those in deepest need.

Our Traditions

Our passage from Matthew is truly remarkable.  This particular story is found in all four of the Gospels and it occurs twice in Matthew and in Mark.  No other story in scripture gets this kind of play.  Two of the Gospels have birth narratives, only one has the story of Lazarus being raised from the grave, only one has the story of the Prodigal Son, but this story – the feeding of five thousand is found in all four gospels and repeated in two of them.  How important do you think that makes it?                                            Perhaps it would help to know that just prior to this story in Matthew John the Baptizer was executed as a terrorist by the authorities because they thought he was inciting people to riot against the empire.  Remember that John and Jesus were cousins and their mother’s had been pregnant at the same time so they were close.  After Jesus hears about John he goes off in a boat trying to “get to a lonely place to be by himself.”  He no doubt wants to pray, to grieve. Matthew leads us to believe that the hills were crawling with people who had already heard stories about Jesus and his healing skills and his storytelling and so they came after him with their sick and injured family members and friends.  According to some scholars, the numbers could have been as high as fifteen to twenty thousand.  Note they would not have counted the women and children in those days so that could have conceivably doubled or tripled the number of people seeking Jesus. And we are told that Jesus, as much as he needed to get away and be by himself for a while had compassion on these people and healed them. 2

Re-mything our Traditions

It is the end of the day and everyone is hungry. The disciples had only packed a basic peasant’s picnic of a few loaves and fishes – notice there is no young boy with food in this telling of the story.  So what are they to do about all the others? The disciples give Jesus a fairly standard response, at least to our way of thinking.  They said, send the people into the surrounding towns and let them buy their own food. Now, if we stop to think about it that would have been impossible.  First of all, these people were poor and sick. It probably took everything they had to get to Jesus and that is why they were following Jesus.  Homelessness and extreme poverty were at crises levels in Jesus’ day.  Under Roman rule the transfer of wealth out of impoverished areas into wealthier ones had decimated the rural areas where Jesus did most of his ministry.  For these destitute people this wandering prophet was a rare, but welcome hope. As politically charged and ineffective as our social structures are today, they had nothing even close to our welfare, food stamps or Affordable Care Act at the time of Jesus.                   Another important point made by Stan Duncan in his weekly blog is that even if they all immediately left and rushed to the surrounding towns to buy something (assuming, of course, they had money to make purchases) the towns would have been overwhelmed and flooded, and incapable of servicing them. 3                                                                                             Have you ever noticed how it seems that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?  Apparently the disciples weren’t aware of this and when Jesus responded to their suggestion that all these hungry folks head for the nearest 7/11, they must have been flummoxed by the response of Jesus telling them that the hungry people didn’t have to go away.  In what appears to be a very matter-of-fact instruction Jesustells the disciples (and us) to just feed them.  They complained a bit about that.  They reminded Jesus that they only had five loves and two fishes.                                         Let me tell you, it is ever so challenging to preach this story knowing that here in the US we have an epidemic of obesity.  A couple of years ago when Michelle Obama started her “Healthy Eating” program, several school systems did indeed start instituting healthier foods in their meal programs, but parents in some states exploded in anger.  They were quoted as saying that this is a free country and if our kids want to gorge themselves on sugar and fat they should have the right to do so.  I hope that we have all been mortified by the reception extended to the children streaming into the US from Central America.  I find myself asking, “How bad must it be in a parent’s world for them to place their child into the care of a total stranger and give that stranger hard-earned money to deliver that child to yet other strangers in a foreign land in hopes of realizing a better and safer life?” And how can we, the most prosperous country in the world, say to these children, there isn’t enough to go around and you have to go straight back to whatever hell it was you were trying to escape.                                              The first response of the Biblical disciples was to worry about not having enough, about having too little to offer.  There are thousands of people out there, and our resources are so miniscule. Jesus’ response was quite simple, “share what you have and let’s see what happens.” The disciples, like those folks in Murrieta and other places around the country are crying scarcity:  we don’t have enough to go around.                                      This is a very brief exchange between Jesus and his followers.  I would have thought that there might have been greater protestation:  We don’t have enough to go around.  We can’t feed all of these people with our meager picnic.  We hear these same arguments today.  We are less and less willing to care for our own poor people. We claim we can’t afford to give hungry people Food Stamps (SNAP) or WIC, or we begrudgingly offer free school lunch programs in low income neighborhoods.  Jesus, on the other hand, had a theology of abundance:  share what you have because God provides everything.                                                                                      It is true we can’t feed everyone.  And yes, there will always be suffering.  We can’t make it go away.  We can’t end it for everyone, everywhere forever.  Jesus certainly did not feed all the people in the world, nor did he try. But that is no reason to not do anything and let those we can help suffer or even die.                                                                             There is a story that I love.  It is about a guy out on the beach after a really big storm and he is walking along the beach throwing starfish after starfish back into the ocean. A friend comes up to him and points out the obvious fact that there is no way this man can save all these starfish, he can’t even make a big difference. Then he asks what this man possibly hopes to accomplish. The man picked up a starfish and agreed with his friend that what he had said is true, but then he added, “It makes a big difference to this one,” and he threw another starfish back into the water.           Which of the two aspects of our story from Matthew is the greater miracle?  Feeding people with bread and fish or turning around the hearts of others and teaching them how to share?  Which is the greater miracle for us?  Is it for Jesus to do all the work for us, or for Jesus to change our hearts and enable us to do for him?                                                                 We have been blessed with this gorgeous new sanctuary.  God has been very good to us.  Our partnership with the fine folks at Bethesda Presbyterian Church was divinely orchestrated and inspired.  Now, what do you think Jesus is saying to us?  I can assure you that we do not need to hedge our bets. We have the ability to reach out and change this community. We have enough people to spread the word about God’s love and the grace of Jesus, it really only takes one. Sure, we could always use more, but if we have a theology of abundance, our approach is to say “yes, if. . . not no because”.  We believe that we can make a difference and that we will not only see miracles, but we will be miracles. May it be so! Amen.

Prayer

Most wonderful God, in you there are always more blessings than we can imagine. Please give to us that generous spirit that places all that we have at your disposal. Then by the love of Christ, let it be multiplied in ways we cannot measure or control. For the welfare of humanity and the glory of your name we pray through Jesus our brother. Amen!

 

____________________

1 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3293

2 http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2014/07/enough.html

 

3 http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2014/07/enough.html

 

 

Sermon: July 13, 2014

Sermon:  God Will Provide                                                                     July 13, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                        Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture: Matthew 13:1-23 (MSG) (17)

13 1-3 At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories.

3-8 “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.

“Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

10 The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”

11-15 Jesus replied, “You’ve been given insight into the realm of God. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.

16-17 “But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance. (18)

18-19 “Study this story of the farmer planting seed. When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart. This is the seed the farmer scatters on the road.

20-21 “The seed cast in the gravel—this is the person who hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm. But there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.

22 “The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the news of sovereignty, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.

23 “The seed cast on good earth is the person who hears and takes in the News, and then produces a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.”  (19)

Prayer

We have listened to the words of the street corner and the marketplace. And we have heard the words of our friends and neighbors. These words have often left us confused. They have not pointed the way to a clear and compelling goal. So we come to you, O God, in search of the Word that will give direction and meaning to our lives. Amen.

Our Experience

Growing up in Idaho, our small community was surrounded by farms.  I often visited in the home of my aunt and uncle.  My uncle spent most of the day working his family farm in order to produce a successful harvest.  There were wheat fields, plenty of summer corn and apple orchards. My brothers and I often sat at the table and shared their bounty.  Not only were my brothers and I able to enjoy the fruits of these fields but thousands of people we did not know were able to eat as a result of my uncle’s efforts. (19)  Jesus used a parable to introduce his hearers to the realm of God.  A farmer planted seed in hopes of producing a good crop.  Unfortunately not all the seed planted resulted in a harvest.  Some seed fell on rocky soil or into thorns.  Only the seed planted in the good soil resulted in a harvest. (20)       And so it is. Our ministry of telling others about the household of God will not always produce good results.  Some will misunderstand the story completely; others will have nothing more than a temporary religious experience.  But some will get it and they will follow the teachings of Jesus.  An important point in this story is that we are relieved of the responsibility of deciding who does and who does not get into the commonwealth of God.  (21) Our focus is on sharing the message of the Church: that Christ died and brought us new life.  That is the gospel.  We are recipients of the grace of God and when we do our part in the fields of ministry others we may not know personally will also benefit from the message of Jesus’ love.  (22)              The ministry of sowing is not a task for those who are easily discouraged.  Results may not be evident for many years or even in our lifetime.  We sew seeds in faith that a harvest will eventually be reaped even if not in our lifetime.  The reward is in doing the work that Christ calls us to. (23)  (Adapted from: Thad H. Carter:  http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/1342/sermon-starter-the-harvest)

Our Experience Expanded

Now, for those of us with the spiritual gift of delayed gratification that is indeed good news, but for those of us who like the good feeling of knowing NOW that our efforts have paid off, it may be more difficult. Let’s dig a little deeper into this story. The Sower seems to understand what needs to be done.  The Sower understands that by sowing the seed into a field – any old field – change will take place.  The seeds will eventually be transformed into fruit and flowers and vegetables.  The Sower knows that God gives the power for seed to change.  God provides!       (24)                  I believe that the Sower is looking deep into the heart of the soil where the seeds are being planted.  The tossing of seed by the Sower may seem careless, even reckless, but is it? (25) I think the Sower is looking at us (the soil) and asking:  are we spiritual beings having a human experience or are we human beings having spiritual experiences?  And why does that make a difference? (26) Rocky soil?  Rich soil?  Draught affected soil? Properly irrigated soil?  Well fertilized soil?  Soil that is depleted of all minerals?         (27) Have you ever met someone who was spiritually depressed? That would be rocky, arid soil. (28) These are the folks who struggled with hope and faith – they are just not sure it will ever get better. Spiritual Depression, I learned recently, comes in cycles: (1) It starts with a disappointment, an unmet expectation. (2) This inevitably leads to major discontentment. They just can’t accept what has happened. (3) So despair sets in and they see no way out. (4) And before we know it, they become destructive, the alcohol abuse sets in, or the binge eating takes over or the cutting starts or the shopping or spending gets totally out of control. Sometimes I see the church engaged in this cycle.  I hasten to remind those folks that we are an Easter people – we choose life, even if sometimes the church doesn’t have the appearance that it is thriving.                                                                        But then what do I know, silly me, I am one of those people who can hardly wait to get to church on Sunday morning! I felt that way this morning as I thought about meeting in the Fellowship Hall around tables with a PowerPoint order of worship and the prospect of our Town Hall meeting and beginning our visioning, our dreaming and yes, even some planning for St. Paul’s future.  St. Paul’s is a church in search of understanding. (29) We are an anxious church.  We are compassionate and caring people. We need a bit of practice with the being prophetic part of our faith journey, but for the most part we practice discipleship.  Did you know that 69% of Presbyterian congregations have fewer than 100 folks in worship on Sunday morning? Someone I once sat next to on a very tumultuous flight to Chicago reminded me that a little bit of turbulence is not fatal. (30) Sometimes upheaval can even be a good thing.                                                                                               When Dayja was getting ready to leave Alpine Academy in Utah and return home to Santa Monica we met together with her therapist and she reminded us both that transitions can be productive times and that with open and honest communication, regular intentional family time together, overall consistency, not taking any shortcuts and remembering that trust issues go both ways we would be OK. (31)                                                    The Sower takes the seed to places, to soil, it could never imagine. God doesn’t give a hoot what we do; God cares about why we do it.  And if we don’t understand why we do what we do then how will others believe what we believe? 250,000 people showed up to hear Dr. MLK give a speech. Do you think they showed up for themselves? Or did they have other reasons?  25% of the audience was white. They all came to hear him talk about a dream he had, not a plan he hoped to formulate.          (32)

Our Traditions

As Jesus told the parable, a farmer put a heavy seed bag on his shoulder and went out to his field to sow seed. In those days, farmers broadcast seed across a fallow field before plowing.  (33) That’s right; seed was first sown, and then gently plowed into the ground. You might find it interesting that this methodology is being reclaimed today by farmers wanting to better care for God’s earth. (34) “No-till” corn is quite the rage in parts of the Midwest. Using refined technology, a farmer can sow and cultivate a corn crop without deep-plowing the field. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Imagine that! This would have been unheard of back on my uncle’s farm in Idaho 50 years ago.  (35)                  According to Jesus as this farmer broadcast his precious seed some fell on a well-worn path cut by foot traffic through the fallow field. When fields lay fallow, foot travelers would cut walking paths through the fields, taking the shortest distance between two points. Fencing was rarely if ever used in the first century. So some seed landed on the path. And when it did, the birds quickly enjoyed lunch.                                                                  Other seeds, said Jesus, fell on rocky ground. Because there was little soil there, the seedlings sprang up quickly and then withered under the scorching sun.(36)  Thorns choked off other seeds, denying them the light of day and the promise of their bounty. Finally, some seed fell on good ground and brought forth a bumper crop yielding thirty, sixty, even a (37)hundredfold. Jesus ended the story admonishing all to listen; listen carefully, deeply, and thoughtfully. Listen! (38)                                               Now, what if this parable could be applied with equal power to every individual life, to everyone who listens? If that is so, all of our lives have  (39) worn, rocky, thorny, and yes, good soil in which seed can germinate and grow. What if this parable is about you and me? If so, what is God saying to us?      (40)                                                                                  If your life is like mine, you know how daily living creates well-worn paths. We call them ruts. (41) We drive to and from work using the same route day after day. We shop at the same grocery store, fill our tanks at the same Costco every week, thankfully attend the same church, and, more times than not, feed our families predictable menus of foods we know they will eat and enjoy. (42) Routines are often required, but sometimes in our relationship with God, routines can become ruts. We can attend church week after week, hear the scriptures read (like this familiar parable), follow the same order of worship, sing familiar hymns, go through the church routine, and in so doing, give the good seed God sows us to the birds of indifference. Trust me. It happens and may be happening even now.

Re-mything our Traditions

Truth be told, God’s seed also falls on the rocky places of our lives. (43) Life, by definition, can leave us cold, sharp, soilless, and rough. Pain, the cruelty of insensitive friends, and the crude comments of strangers can leave us lifeless and unmoved, rocks void of God’s bounty. Thorns pop up in our life’s ground as well. None of us intend to succumb to the cutting brutality of thorns, but there they are, choking out God’s blessings, robbing us of God’s promise. (44)                                                                          But thanks be to God, some seed falls on good ground. When it does, the miracle of germination, cultivation, nourishment, sunshine, rain, and care yield a generous harvest no one thought was possible. It happens in all our lives in ways that leave us speechless.           (45)                                  Here is the needed twist in this old, old story. Yes, there will always be people who are worn out, rocky, wasted, and yes, good, too. Actually, the gospel reminds us there is far more good in all of us in which God’s grace can take root than any of us imagine. All manner of ground exists in the fields that are our lives. (46) Why don’t we clear out the rocks, cut down the thorns, change up the routines, and give God even more opportunities to grow from our lives the generous, bountiful, giving people God in Christ made us to be? I dare you to believe it today and to discover it as we do the amazing work of God that lies ahead for us.  Adapted from: http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5127/a-generous-harvest

Prayer

You move into our lives, Spirit of life, quietly taking those fears which trip us up, gently watering the seeds planted in our inept souls until they become bushels of grace. Keep us mindful of the amazing things you do in our lives.  Amen.

 

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