Messages

A Prayer for Selling

God, here is our prayer.

That we will make decisions about this building

that reflect what we’ve learned and lived in this building.

That we will remember how, in the beginning,

you moved over the great nothing and brought something into being.

That you made people for community, not loneliness,

and that you asked us to exercise good stewardship over all that you made.

That you made promise after promise to us,

and even when we were faithless, you remained faithful.

That you brought us out of the narrow place

into a land where we could practice the hard work of freedom.

That you raised up prophets and judges in each generation,

leaders who shared the right word at the right time.

That you showed patience and forbearance

when we coveted the success and prosperity of those all around us.

That you made a house for us,

and not the other way around.

That you were always present in all our struggles for power and security

calling us to prioritize the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable.

That you accompanied us during our long exile,

the generation in which there was no future in sight.

That you made a home for us in the wilderness,

encouraging us to seek the good of the city.

That you fed us with songs of praise and lament,

words of wisdom and the assurance that there is a season for all things.

That you worked through the powers of this world

to give us a new beginning and put us to work rebuilding the community.

That you chose ordinary people like us

to do an extraordinary thing like this.

That you called us away from the things we have known,

to build a world we’ve not yet seen.

That you showed us your power in acts of feeding and healing,

and the riches of life with you by giving yourself away freely.

That you ate with sinners and outcasts,

and welcomed everyone at your table.

That you raised people and places left for dead to new life so that

death could frighten us no longer and the impossible might seem achievable.

That you appeared to people filled with fears and doubts,

and let your wounds be evidence of our healing.

That you promised to be with us, to advocate for us,

even as you sent us to be a sign of your presence to the lost and the lonely.

That you spoke your word of truth and life in every language

so that no one could own you and all land would be holy.

That you challenged our expectations for the future

by recalling to us our past.

Remembering who you have been, we trust that

you will be with us as we continue to become ourselves.

As we prepare to leave this building in search of a new place to call home,

we watch for signs of your movement in us, for us, and through us.

Now, we pray, give us the wisdom to make decisions we will be proud to share,

as we continue to tell the story of your presence in all our histories.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

mars_2445397bGeorge Hatcher is a man in his mid-thirties who works as a NASA engineer in Florida. He is married with a two-year old, and ever since he was a young child he has wanted to live on Mars. He may just get his wish.

Earlier this week it was announced that George was one of a hundred finalists out of an initial pool of over two hundred thousand being considered to establish a permanent human colony on Mars.  The project isn’t being sponsored by NASA, but by Mars One, a Dutch, not-for-profit foundation interested in inspiring a new generation to continue exploring the vast expanses of creation that exist beyond our atmosphere.

I became aware of George’s story because he is an alumnus of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), the same summer program of theological exploration to which this congregation sent Lynda Deacon about five years ago. Almost twenty years ago George was a rising high school senior, spending a month with young scholars from around the country on the campus of Emory University exploring the connection between their faith and the pressing issues of the day. Today he identifies as Baha’i, part of a global religious movement with roots in 19th century Persia that emphasizes the unity of God, religion and humanity.

In an interview for YTI’s alumni newsletter released before this week’s announcement, George spoke about his desire to travel to Mars, particularly in light of the fact that the mission is planned as a one-way trip with no return to Earth.  He said,

Regardless of whether I’m selected to go, making it to the second round of the application process has been more philosophically beneficial that I could ever have imagined. Every deep breath of free oxygen I draw in, every meal I enjoy, every step I take in Earth gravity, every sunset I witness, every moment I spend with my family and friends is more special, more profound, more real than ever before. When you live your life with the knowledge that your years on Earth might be fewer in number than you previously thought, when you know the actual date you might wave goodbye to everything you love, it’s almost like knowing the hour of your death. It fundamentally changes you. For me, it’s already for the better. I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.

“I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.”

If I could reduce the meaning of tonight’s gathering to one sentence, that would be a contender. In contrast to the almost forced gloom with which some associate Ash Wednesday, what I hear in the ancient reminder, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is an encouragement to live, like George, with a sense of your own mortality so that each breath, each meal, each step, each sunset, each moment might be lived to the fullest. So that we all might come to really love the lives we’ve been given to the fullest, rather than squander them in anxiety and despair.

All this talk of love may strike some as too light for an evening focused on our mortality and need for repentance. As for me, I hear Jesus instructing his followers,

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your  Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16)

There is a way of marking the season of Lent that focuses on generating a mood of self-denial for self-denial’s sake, that turns the forty day fast into a kind of spiritual marathon in which one can demonstrate to one’s self (and anyone who asks) a measure of Christian fortitude through the denial of pleasure — whether that be the traditional forsworn vices of coffee, or alcohol, or chocolate; or the more modern swearing off of television or social media. Without presuming to know every reason a person might choose to give up any of those activities, I’ll just say that I worry they miss the point.

The emphases on almsgiving, prayer and fasting outlined in Matthew’s gospel are not intended to create spiritual tests for us to pass, or to generate mild forms of suffering to help us empathize with the deeper suffering of Christ on the cross. These disciplines, as I understand them, are an invitation for us to notice all that diminishes our experience of the great gift of life that comes to us as an unmerited gift by the God who is revealed in Jesus as the voice of truth unmasking the interlocking set of lies that hold us captive to a vision of life that is literally killing us all.

If I fast during the season of Lent, as Muslims do during the season of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, it is not so that I will experience the suffering of hunger pangs, but so that I will be moved to consider the hunger that is experienced in and out of season by the world’s poor; so that I will be moved to deeper prayer; so that I will take the money I might have spent on food and reallocate it toward acts of mercy, justice and advocacy for those who are hungry every day of the year. My fasting brings me to consciousness of the painful brokenness of the world, my prayer moves me to action as my almsgiving, my offerings, create the change I long to see.

These disciplines are a form of repentance, which is not merely a manufactured emotion worn in public for all to see for forty days. It is an amended life, that turns away from the world and its death-dealing values to reclaim solidarity with all of God’s creation. It is the response to the prophet Joel’s call for us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” (Joel 2:13)

All of which is good practice for the life of baptism, for which the season of Lent has historically served as a time of preparation. As we move through these forty days toward the festival of the resurrection at Easter, we are moving into a deeper awareness of the call we each receive in our baptism to repent; to notice, name and turn away from all the death-dealing powers of this world, so that we can more fully embrace the gift of the life God has given to each of us, and to the whole world.

What is it that generates distress in your life?  What lie does the world whisper in your ear that keeps you up at night?  Is it that you aren’t young enough? Old enough? Is it that you are too large or too small? That you don’t have enough money, enough education, enough experience, enough friends, enough time?

Dear ones, those voices lie. You are God’s own beloved but we are living in a world drowning in lies.

God has a different flood in store for you, a different deluge in which to wash you. There are waters that unite you to the rest of life on this planet, and beyond. Consider this night what you need to confess, what you need to remove from your life, what you need to eliminate from the menu of ideas and goods and habits the world keeps trying to force feed you. Consecrate this night a holy fast, a simplification of life, so that you might come to the great feast of Easter awaiting us all and be able to affirm a love of life deeper than you’ve ever imagined before.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 6, 2014: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67  +  Psalm 45:10-17  +  Romans 7:15-25a  +  Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Illegal-Kids-Cross-US-BorderAn unknown man walks into your hometown and offers to take you away from your family, away from your country, to another land and another group of people. He discusses the offer with your parents, who seem willing to let you go but are willing to leave the decision to you. As you consider the possible futures that lay before you, you parents ask you “will you go with this man?” And, perhaps to your surprise, you hear yourself saying, “I will.”

What would have to be going on in your life, in your world, for such an offer from an unknown person to seem like the wiser course of action? What would it take for you to leave all that you have ever known and set out for a new nation, placing your life in someone else’s hands?

That is the essence of the story we hear from Genesis this morning. Having been tried and tested throughout his long life, Father Abraham has buried his wife, Sarah, and is nearing death. All that God had promised him has come to pass. Called to leave their own homeland behind, Abraham and Sarah have come into the land that was promised to them; they have borne a child, Isaac, against all odds; and now all that remains is for Abraham to be sure that Isaac has a wife so that their family line can continue and God’s promise to make them progenitors of a vast people more numerous than the stars in the sky can be fulfilled.

Having built a new life for himself in this new land, Abraham does not want to return to Haran, the land of his birth, to find Isaac a wife — and he doesn’t want Isaac to return there either. What would be the point of all that they’d sacrificed, all that they’d risked, if their son simply returned to the place they’d come from? At the same time, Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to marry one of the women in Canaan where they have made their home. Like many a first generation immigrant, Abraham is caught between identifying with the land of his birth, and the place he and his wife had come to call home.

So Abraham, who has slowly, finally, come to understand that God’s promises will be kept in God’s time, does what he has learned to do. He makes a plan and takes action, charging his chief servant to return to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac, but allowing that things may or may not turn out as planned. As Abraham sends his servant off on this mission he says,

“See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:7-8)

There’s something interesting about this story, something that makes it more approachable to ordinary people like you and me: God doesn’t speak. Over the long course of their relationship, God has spoken to Abraham, guiding and directing him. Now, nearing the end of his life, Abraham takes action without knowing precisely what God expects or desires. Standing at the threshold between life and death, having achieved great things but knowing that the future remains uncertain, Abraham does not hear a voice from God instructing him in what to do. Instead, he exercises discernment. He makes a choice, one that is obviously colored by his own experience, perhaps even his own prejudices, but one that also creates an opportunity for a future for his family.

This theme is repeated throughout this story. The servant whom Abraham sent back to Haran comes to a well, and there he offers a prayer, a plea for God’s assistance. He says,

“Oh LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ — let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” (Gen. 24:12-14)

Faced with a difficult challenge, Abraham’s servant turns to God in prayer and shows signs of discernment. His criteria may, initially, seem odd — a woman who will offer him a drink and water his camels — it’s not the sort of thing we might post in our own online profiles, but it shows that he is looking for a woman who demonstrates evidence of kindness, generosity and hospitality to strangers. These would be markers of a faithful woman who heeded God’s call to show hospitality to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah did when God came to them by the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) to announce that they would have a son.

When just such a woman does show up in the form of Rebekah, whose gracious hospitality is almost comic in proportions as she fetches water for not only the servant but his ten thirsty camels as well, God still does not speak. Instead the scriptures say that Abraham’s servant “gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful” (Gen. 24:21). Like us, this servant of the LORD relies on prayer and then makes the best decision he can, trusting God to be faithful to God’s promises.

Having done his part, the final discernment is left to Rebekah, a woman whom the author of Genesis goes to great lengths to compare to Abraham himself. Like him, she is called out of their shared homeland, called to leave family and nation behind. Like him she offers hospitality to a stranger, in fulfillment of God’s commands. Like him she is offered a blessing that anticipates the she will become the mother of nations who will inherit a land of their own (Gen. 24:60). But all these things rest on her own decision, freely made, to step into this new reality, which she does — not because she hears the voice of God, but because she discerns something in the servant’s story that rings true, and leads her to step forward in faith.

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. That is what Abraham finally shows here at the end of his long life. No longer trying to force God’s hand with attempts to engineer his own future by means of his slave, Eliezer, or through his wife’s slave, Hagar; Abraham’s penultimate action is to chart a course forward that demonstrates a living, daring confidence that God will be whom God has been. It is living because it is happening in the present, influencing decision being made in real-time. It is daring because there is something of real value being risked — his family’s future.

This story about the passing of generations has so much to say to us, here, today.  As Abraham and Sarah give way to Isaac and Rebekah, we see how in each generation God’s call sounds remarkably similar, inviting us to leave the security of what we have known behind and to be willing to make big decisions, in the present, risking all that has been hard won, to ensure a future for our families.

Immigration Overload Hot SpotWe see it being played out on the border of our country every day, as young women and men leave their homes in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Mexico to create a new life for themselves in the United States, where others have gone before them fleeing the violence of their homelands. Perhaps no voice other than their own internal wisdom guiding them to step out in faith, with the living, daring confidence that God will guard and guide them to a better life than the one they’ve known.

We are living this faith right here in our own congregation, as the strategic listening team goes out like Abraham’s servant to watch and to listen for signs in the stories each of us is sharing about how this congregation offers welcome in the form of food and water, at the table and the font, and as we feed our neighbors knowing that when we welcome strangers into our homes we welcome God as well. We have received a great inheritance from those who have gone before us. Still, we know that in every generation we are called to demonstrate a living, daring faith in the grace of God — a faith that calls for discernment and decisions in the present moment that involve real risk.

You, too, are facing these decisions in your own lives. Whether you are young or you are old, whether you are raising children or burying spouses, you — like Abraham and Sarah, like Rebekah and Isaac — are living your lives by faith. Grounded in prayer, shaped by a tradition that has formed you for lives of kindness, generosity and hospitality, you meet the challenges of each day listening for the voice of God in the world and in your life. More often than not, however, you are required to exercise what wisdom you have gained by watching and listening for signs of God’s movement in the world without anything so clear as a voice from above.

What allows you to do this? I believe it is confidence in God’s grace. The apostle Paul, plagued by his own fears that his best choices were corruptible, and his own worst inclinations ever-present, nevertheless shows the same living, daring confidence in the grace of God that we see in Abraham, his servant, and Rebekah. He writes, “wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 6:24)

It is this grace that makes light the burdens of the decisions we are called to make each and every day. Like Abraham and Rebekah we are making decisions that will shape the course of our lives, and of the lives of generations to come. Rather than causing us to be timid, the grace of God calls us to be bold — not placing our trust in our own discernment, but in the power of God to work in us and through us for the healing of the nations and the entire world. Or, to quote Luther again,

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly!], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however … are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

Knowing, then, that God is at work in every generation, in me and in you, calling us to leave behind all that we’ve known to forge a new family, created by water shared and promises made, we are faced with the same question posed to Rebekah: “Will you follow this man?”

Amen.

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