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)