Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(sorry, no audio/video recording this week)


Luke 14:12-14New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

1 Corinthians 11:20-29English Standard Version (ESV)

20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

What I would like each of you to do is to imagine for a moment that you have the opportunity of a lifetime.  Close your eyes.  Imagine you are at a large table.  Imagine you can have any food you want and that you can invite anyone in the world to join you for the meal.  Famous, infamous, influential, powerful, musical, funny, brilliant and insightful, activist, politician, leader, poet, author, personal hero… whoever.  Dream big.  You can open your eyes now.  Write the names down on your sermon outline insert.  You can draw a little table and stick figures, if you want.  Have fun with it.

Now, recently in Australia, a food company asked this question to people.  I’ll warn you in advance.  They’re Australian, so they speak Australian.  It’s a lot like English, but not. .. So you may have trouble understanding them.  And I’m sorry that the subtitles aren’t visible from where most of you are sitting.  And you may not recognize all the names they say because they live in another place.  But watch and see what feels familiar to you…

(watch the clip or click here before you continue reading)

Now, if you’re a parent, you may have just smiled or maybe your mind was blown.  But all of you, I hope, just realized there are people who given the choice of absolutely anyone to eat with, would choose to eat… with you.  Sometimes, that means your kids or family members.  Sometimes, it’s the people right there around you related by faith or proximity in your life.

Who are the people with whom Jesus was most concerned with reaching out to and commanded us to love and spend time with?  The widows and widowers, the orphans, the sick and in prison, the oppressed, the friendless… the lonely.  The people who would feel the love of Christ in the simple invitation to join us for a meal.

How many of you have ever been lonely?  How many have you have ever been invited to join others for a gathering?  For a meal?  Or longed to be?  How did that feel?

Let me ask you… what meals are important to you?  When does the menu and guest list matter?  What meals do we plan for for months?  We have one coming up… Thanksgiving… Christmas… maybe Easter and others.  My own mother already called me this week to ask me my plans for Thanksgiving.  Gotta nail that down!

For Jesus and his Jewish community, that meal of thanks was the Passover meal.  It was a tradition, a gathering, a wonderful potluck for families and friends.  In fact, the meal we celebrated last week with our Korean friends was much more like the Passover FEAST and the early celebrations of Communion in the early Church than what we did symbolically here at this table. 

How we celebrate and share Communion… but just as importantly, how we celebrate and share our meals is critical to our witness to the Lord of love we know and serve.  If we take seriously our call as believers to be known by our love, then Paul’s call to the church in Corinth to examine themselves and the meal is a call to US.  It is a call for us to look around our table and see who is missing, to pull up more chairs, and to invite the lonely, the forgotten, the needy. 

Some need to be there because they need to be fed.  Some need to be there because they need to be loved, to be included, to not be alone, to be welcomed.  If we treasure our holiday meals for the chance to gather with family and friends, then who should we first think to invite to our table?  Who better than people who have lost family and friends?  They will feel it most keenly at these moments.  They need us.  They need to be loved.  They need an invitation.  And we need more chairs at the table.

When we make the guest list for our meal, do we first think of those who will be alone or feel alone?  When we sit down to a church lunch, do we try to find our best friends or do you try to find visitors?  Do we look for a member who needs us and our family to invite them to join us?  Do we turn to our Korean brothers and sisters and ask them to join us as we enjoy the food they so lovingly share?  In our places of work and school, do we look around the cafeteria or break room or office and see who needs to be invited and brought into the group?

Social media is full of stories these days about popular kids or groups of people inviting disabled kids and those with socialization difficulties to be the hero of a sporting event, or to join them for meals, to make it cool… exactly the people Jesus calls us to invite to our meals.  And shouldn’t we be inspired by that… to do exactly that.

Some of the best friends I made in my life in high school in college were people I invited to eat with me.  I did this because I was taught to do this.  Not in words.  My mother would start months ahead of time making her list and pulling up chairs… who needed an invite to the meal?  Someone was alone or far from family… someone had recently lost a parent or a spouse or was a newly empty-nester.  Someone was working and couldn’t travel to be with anyone.  Whoever would be lonely… whoever would feel loved being a part of our family for that meal… it was so ingrained that my mother never had to tell me to do it.  She never said, “Brian, look around.  Think hard.  Who needs to be invited?”  My mother just did it.  Over and over.  And I learned.

Church meals, Communion, and worship feed us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  But Jesus challenges us, demands we invite those who need to be there the most.  Paul repeats this challenge to examine ourselves and our table and our meal for who is there and how we are celebrating.  He tells us our celebration and our meals are empty if our table is empty of those who need the invitation most.

Our kids yearn to eat with us.  But that doesn’t go away with age.  We all need to be invited.  Christ understood that invitations to meals were holy because meals were holy moments.  It’s no coincidence he called himself the bread of life.  It’s no coincidence his first miracle was at a wedding feast or that his largest ministry miracle was feeding people loaves and fishes… or that his final moments with the people he loved were over a feast, and that he gave us a meal to remember him by.  To share God’s love and hope for people who most need it, we are called to share our holy moments… to share our meals…

I challenged people in the Bible study this week, and I’m going to challenge you.  Invite someone to church next week and the next time we share a church meal.  It can be someone you’ve invited many times or never before.  If they say no, or they do not come… don’t stop there.  Don’t badger them.  But invite them over for dinner or out to dinner.  Invite them to your holy moment of a meal.  Write this down, if you have to next to your picture of your table.  Draw the circle wider.  Pull up some chairs.  And as you begin to make your holiday plans, look for those who need to be invited.  If you need help with who to ask, ask a pastor or a Stephen Minister.  They know who needs an invitation. 

Love is an invitation.  The Gospel is an invitation.  Your meals can be your moment to invite.  Therefore, as you go, invite people to your your holy moments, invite them to your meals… And all God’s people said… Amen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Rock? What Rock?

Sermon Text:  Matthew 7:24-27
Full Sermon on the Mount:  Matthew 5-7

This is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday.  Audio available here.

I can tell this story about my seminary because it’s not the only time it has happened.  Before constructing the new wing of the library, they did all the measuring, excavating, soil studies, site preparation, plans, and so forth.  They built the library.  It was beautiful.  I worked there.  (The head librarian at the time told me this story.)  Then they filled it with books.  How predictable.  Right?  Except it wasn’t.  It wasn’t predicted… expected… planed for… That’s right.  The planners had failed to account for the weight of all the books in that building.

These architects, engineers, and planners, who were trained, and intelligent, had not the wisdom to account for the weight of thousands of books.  As a result, the foundation was not what it needed to be.  That library is sinking more than inch every year.  The good news is that if my boys decide to go to seminary, they can work in the only underground seminary library.

And just like our story today, the difference between the builders of this (and other sinking libraries) and the builders of libraries that are built upon firm foundations is not the training or intelligence.  It’s the wisdom.  The story in our lesson today, the brief illustration from Jesus gives us very few details.  I think we can safely assume the houses look similar, are built in the same style of the day, outwardly very much the same.  And, there’s no indication of shoddy craftsmanship.  We have plenty of accounts and parables from Jesus about hard workers and lazy workers.  This is NOT such a story.  That’s not the lesson.  And we must be careful to notice this.  Because in this story, both men worked hard, both were very busy.  Both accomplished the task of building a house.  But one withstood the storm.  One didn’t.

So we have to look carefully at the words in these 6 verses.  What’s the difference?  One is built on a foundation of rock and one is a foundation of sand.  And we are told precisely what kind of faith or life is built on a rock and what kind of faith and life is built on sand.  The wise one is like one who HEARS THESE WORDS AND DOES THEM.  The fool is like the one who HEARS THESE WORDS AND DOES NOT DO THEM.

The Greek here for fool is MOROS… it’s where we get the word moron… it means both “foolish” and “godless…” to this culture, those two ideas are the same.  That’s a clue.  The WISE man and the FOOL both HEAR.  Maybe they even both BELIEVE.  But only one DOES what God has told him to do.  Which is what exactly?

Our passage today comes at the end of chapters 5 through 7.  Anyone remember what the rest of chapters 5-7 contain?  You have those Bibles right there.  Take them out.  Look for yourself.  That’s right.  Sermon on the Mount… the beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer (prayer 101), who WE ARE (salt and light), why he came (to fulfill the law – be our example)… he hits anger, lust, divorce, retaliation, loving our enemies, feeding the hungry, fasting, greed (laying up treasures here), worry, judging others, and the Golden Rule…  You CANNOT effectively read the wise man who built his house on the rock without the rest of this sermon.  Gray spent weeks preaching on the beatitudes.  You know them.  These three chapters are the rubric for Christian living, for a faithful life, our response to God’s grace. 

Let me be very clear here.  These are not rules.  These are not a checklist to EARN salvation.  They are not the means TO GET grace.  They are the response TO RECEIVING grace.  They are the rock upon which you build the solid faith that can weather the storm.  They aren’t busy work.  They are God’s work, our work, the Church’s work.

In talking to families and people of all ages… teenagers, college kids, young parents, middle age folk, retirees, when I ask them how they are, how things are going… it doesn’t matter if it’s school, extra curriculars, driving their kids to activities, involvement in all kinds of things, work, vacation… the answer I get more than ANY other is… I’m just so BUSY…  It doesn’t matter if it sounds like, “I’m so busy with school and AP classes and college apps and clubs and sports and band…” or, “I never knew such a young kid would have so many practices…” or, “I thought once they got older and started driving I’d have fewer things to get to!” or, “I always thought I would be LESS busy once I retired!”
But brothers and sisters, busy can be wise and busy can be foolish.  The measure of it is hearing and doing these words, the whole Sermon on the Mount.  I encourage you this week to read the whole thing.  In one sitting.  That’s how it was originally heard.  That’s how most early converts would have heard it read and told, as ONE message.  An explanation of the radical life of faith with this story of the wise man who built his house on the rock as a conclusion, not a stand-alone story.

I spent time in Israel a few years ago.  I stayed at a retreat house on or near where Jesus probably gave this sermon.  I read these chapters each morning when I got up.  It is our best reminder as believers the KIND of busy we should be.  Too many of us who yearn to be good parents, good citizens, good Presbyterians with a strong Protestant work ethic… we have bought into this notion that if we prepare our kids with the best schools, the right challenging course load, GPA, sports, clubs, travel teams, SAT and ACT scores, and land that perfect college, our kids will be set.  They’ll get that job, they’ll get that career and family and be safe, secure, taken care of.  That’s sand, brothers and sisters.  Make no mistake, that’s sand. 

The kids of my generation, those a few years older and younger… We are taking 5 or 6 years to graduate, if we graduate at all.  We are coming out with massive student debt, no jobs in our chosen fields, or adding to that debt with grad school.  We are not employed in our fields, or under employed or unemployed, living home.  Is it any wonder that mental illness, depression, substance abuse, and destructive behaviors are on the rise?  No.  As a community of believers, we have failed to help them build their life on the rock.  And when the rains and winds and floods come, the house falls.

Far fewer of us are building on the rock.  Instead of building a house that looks like a commitment to weekly worship, fellowship with other believers, study of scripture, serving the hungry and sick and in prison, of praying for one another and reading our Bibles at home with our families, of giving of our time and resources, teaching our kids to give a portion of their birthday money and allowances to mission and service to those in need instead of thinking first what they can gain, of showing our kids our budgets and how we prioritize giving to God… 

You see, we used to believe and see the pattern of young people drifting away from the church in their late teen years and college, drifting back when they start families, away when the kids grow up to be teens and stop being involved, and back when they think about end of life.  But we aren’t seeing that any more.  Just as common as the NONES, are the DONES.  Once they leave, they never come back to a community of faith.  So when we give up as parents and a family of faith and say to our high school kids, “we understand how busy your junior and senior year is…”  When we take them on college tours and check out the journalism school and the football stadium and the bookstore and the dining hall and dorms… but somehow the selection of campus ministries and churches doesn’t make the list for the college visit weekend, we tell our kids exactly what we think they should build on… Sand.  When they leave for college and we no longer make the effort to get to church or feed the homeless or visit those in need… we are building on sand.

Brothers and sisters, it looks bad when we build on sand.  It’s devastating. 

We all know at least one, or a handful of stories of those who storms have hit and they’ve been toppled.  Their house have gone kersplat.

But you know what it looks like when we build on the rock?  When we hear these words and do them?  When we make disciples of our young people?  This week, a six year old boy showed us.  He wrote a letter to the president that has gone viral.  This boy, named Alex, saw another 6 year old Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance on a news report… covered in dust and debris and blood… he said, “Dear Mr. President, Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]?  Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it.”  “We will be waiting with balloons and flags,” he says.  Have YOU built your house on this rock?  Have you lived a life…are you living a life… that the six your olds in your life look at you and want to be like Alex?  Are we busy building on the rock or busy building on the sand?

A WISE man once said, get busy living or get busy dying.  We are called by Christ to HEAR and DO the things he tell us in the Sermon on the Mount, to build on a rock, to get busy LIVING.  Read these words again this week.  Read them several times.  Don’t just believe them.  DO them.  Talk about them with your family over dinner THIS week.  Measure your life not by being busy doing what everyone tells you will secure your future from the storms.  Build your house on the rock.  The storms WILL come.  The rains will fall, the winds will blow, the floods will rise.  And your house… will stand strong.  And all God’s people said… AMEN.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Youth Are NOT The Future of the Church

Sermon from Sunday, July 31.

Teens With A Mission Report on the week long mission trip to San Antonio Del Mar, Mexico.
[Sorry, no transcript or text for this one]

1 Timothy 4:12English Standard Version (ESV)
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

(Link includes sermon, talks from two youth and two youth who went on the trip,
and a solo by one of the youth in worship)

It's the Hard That Makes it Great

Sermon from Sunday, July 10, 2016.

Giving up our power and privilege for those who are marginalized and oppressed.
[Sorry, no transcript or text for this one]

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Where Do You Build Your Nest?


Where do you build your nest?

We just finished up VBS this week.  The kids learned stories and songs every day to learn a specific lesson each day…
God Creates
God Helps
God Loves
God Calms
And finally… God Sends

Our reading from Psalm 84:3 reads… Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

Entrusting your children to the Lord.  VBS, SS, FK, etc.

A show I used to watch chronicled the mis-adventures of a misfit crew at a community college.  The sitcom featured a study group made up of broken dream stories… a lawyer who had faked his college credits, a high school athlete who lost his scholarships due to injury, a recovered drug addict, a poor immigrant, a hippie without direction, a stay at home second career mom, and a retiree. 
In one particularly moving episode, the young poor immigrant, a young man with Asperger’s, expressed a desire to take a film course.  His falafel salesman father did not want his hard earned money to go to such trivial pursuits and forbade it.  Despite the counsel of the lawyer (father to the study group), the well-meaning hippie offered to pay for the course so he could follow his dreams.  Not being a parent herself, she was dismayed when he spent the money not just on the course, but new camera equipment, props, and so forth.  He had completely exasperated his study group parents by the end and caused a major head to head between his real father and his adopted study group surrogates.
The main thrust of the story was an argument over who had Abed’s best interests at heart, and whether he should be allowed to choose to follow his gifts and talents to where he felt called.  And there was no clear right answer.  Until the end.  Abed shared his final project, his film.  In it, he captured the arguments of his adopted parents, a story clearly repeated from his childhood with his biological parents, a story of how people could not accept Abed for Abed, a very unusual and challenged, but creative boy.  His real father cried.  He turned to the study group parents and said, “My boy has trouble expressing himself.  If movies help him to do that, I will pay for the classes.  With medical school as a backup!”  You see, Abed’s father knew the risks.  The risks of stifling his son’s calling.  And the risks of a world in which he’d worked so hard to provide for his own son.

Question is not where your children will/should go after they leave the nest. 
Where do you build your nest?

We build our nest where we nurture our young, where we spend our time and where they learn.
Is your nest at school?  Is it on a ball field?  A theater?  In your car?  In front of a screen?
(Graphic – nest pie chart)

Building your nest on the altar of the Lord or the Altar of something else?
Who or what will they serve after their time there?  Who or what will they serve after their time there?

Building your nest on the altar of the Lord is not without danger…

Any altar you build your nest on carries risk… If it is only the altar of education, they run the risk of pursuing a career that is overcrowded or becomes obsolete or is a bad fit for them.
If it is only the altar of athletics, they run the risk of severe injury, or sudden elimination, expulsion, failure, or fatigue. 

If it is only the altar of recreation or relaxation, they run the risk of never contributing to the needs of others with their resources and time, prioritizing themselves.
Now, the expectation of our God is not that we have no interests or involvements outside the faith community.  Education is highly valued among us Presbyterians for our ability to critically think, to study scripture and our world and to grow in understanding and wisdom and obedience.  Athletics provide ways to appreciate and nurture our bodies, to teach us a sense of competition and fair play, cooperation and teamwork, and to strive to reach our own greatest potential.  And recreation and relaxation can give us time to gather with loved ones, to regain our energy and inspiration for the callings God gives us.

But when we give them too much power and priority through our commitments, or let them crowd out tending to our faith and our callings to serve, we trade involvement for idolization.  We build our nests on other altars.

Now here’s where it gets really hard.  We Presbyterians don’t use the word altar very much.  Anyone know why?  Where is our altar in here?  Our youth can tell you.

We don’t have one!  WHAT is an altar?  It’s where a sacrifice is offered.  Christ was the final sacrifice.  We don’t make offerings of animals or plants any more.  We have a table.  Not an altar.  So the idea of the Lord’s altar in metaphorical sense may need to be put into context.  It’s a place of sacrifice. 

We either sacrifice our time or energy or money or imagination and effort or our very bodies.  And when we sacrifice those things, we sacrifice ourselves, our loyalty.  God asks for all our heart and mind and strength.  And we demonstrate that loyalty by giving a portion of our resources and time.  When we squeeze out that 10% tithe because we budget in more expenses… when we squeeze out our one day out of seven to fit in more activities… when we relegate God to our leftover money, and part of a Sunday or one or two mornings a month… we build our nests on other altars.

But to make those sacrifices on the Lord’s altar does not eliminate risk.  Our children at VBS this week learned that God creates, God Helps, God Loves, and God Calms.  But then God also sends.  God sends us into our world to be a light in dark places, to confront our enemies and our friends in the poor decisions they make or want us to participate in, to fight injustice when we see it, and to look for it, to think others first and ourselves last, to travel to the places and people of need, no matter the peril, and to invite those in need into our lives, into our homes.  In point of fact, the altar of the Lord may be the most dangerous place to build your nest.

So why on earth would the swallow build her nest on the altar of the Lord???  Why should you?  Because this is not all that there is.  Because we are people of eternity not bound for this world only, but a home and a life and a love beyond this world and the altars in it.

Because your children are builders for eternity.  Because when you build your nest on the altar of the Lord, it will guide them when they leave the nest.  It will be the biggest influence on their future nests and where they build them.

Where have you built your nest?  How can you build your nest on the altar of the Lord, how can you be like the mother swallow who offers her young to the Lord?  Every parent or grandparent or neighbor who brought a child to VBS has gathered twigs to build a part of their nest.  When parents bring their children consistently to worship and to First Kids and Youth, and not just when it fits into a hectic schedule or leftover time, they are building their nest on the altar of the Lord.

Some of you have empty nests, some of you are parents and mentors to the children of this place.  Some of you help parents build their nest on the altar by teaching Windows to Worship or Confirmation.  Some of you cook meals every week for children who come to First Kids.  You are people who know that every family needs help to build their nest.  In this world, it’s too hard to build it alone.  You know that shouting across the park to other parents to do a better job is not the way to help them.  They need this place and space.  They need childcare and meals and financial resources and words of encouragement to build their nests where their children will learn of God’s love and God’s call on their lives to every broken place.

It's summer, and this year’s VBS is over.  But the TWAM mission trip is approaching, and when the fall arrives, there will be weekly worship and weekly gatherings for our children and youth.  In order to build a firm foundation of faith for the rest of our children’s lives and to build our nests on the altar of the Lord, those of you with children will need to bring them each week.  And everyone will need to volunteer as there is need, to pitch in, and… to pray daily for the children and families of our children and youth ministries.  Can you all commit to that?  Don’t say yes unless you mean it.  Where will you build your nest?  [On the altar of the Lord]  Tell your neighbor.  Where will you build your nest?  [On the altar of the Lord]  The next time you’re asked to change your priorities or make smaller your offering to God in time or energy, tell someone you are building your nest… on?  [On the altar of the Lord]  

Monday, June 6, 2016

Wayfinders (Baccalaureate Sunday, June 5, 2016)

Audio Link to Sermon

Six miles of rope.  That’s what lashes together the Hokule’a, stem to stern, a 60 foot catamaran-style canoe with twin sails.  The Hokule’a, crewed by 12 Hawaiians is built in the style of the ships that their ancestors sailed hundreds of miles to settle the islands of Hawaii.  Sailing west for the last many months, the Hokule’a sailed up the Potomac to Washington, DC last week.
It is remarkable that a rotating crew of no more than a dozen have made this journey around the world thus far in a vessel of such ancient design and materials.  But far more impressive than the tools and the technology, the raw material, or the traditional design… is the method… the way this crew has navigated from their port of origin.  They… are Wayfinders.
Wayfinding is a method of navigation not widely used for the last 600 years.  It takes years of learning and practice, not to mention constant vigilance, fine tuning, and guidance from a seasoned Wayfinder.  This method relies on a combination of knowledge and observation of constellations, currents, winds, sea life and birds, and the rhythm of the waves as they move under the vessel and are felt from one foot to the other of the navigator who stands at the stern.  And… as importantly as observing all of those elements, a Wayfinder must have a nearly perfect memory and recollection of where he or she has traveled so far in the journey, a mental map.  The navigator often has to stay awake for 18 to 2 hours a day to accomplish this.
This fascinates me and I stand in awe of the inspiring undertaking of this vessel and her crew that have already traveled 26,000 miles.  But what does it have to do with you, graduates?  Why don’t you tell me?
Have any of you undertaken a long journey of any sort?  Are you about to?  In your long journeys, have you had help?  Training?  Have you been given tools?  Have you learned to read the signs?  To look to the horizon and set a goal for yourself?  Has looking back from where you come helped you to find your current whereabouts and set your course for your destination ahead?  Where have you been?  Where are you now?  Where are you going?
Those questions are not separate!  They are, in fact, inseparable!  Where you have been, each moment, each decision, each event, each day, each accomplishment, each gift or lesson, and even each obstacle or storm has brought you here.  And each of them has helped you choose where to go next.  You have been guided to where you sit now and the accolades you wear and boast, the offers you’ve received, the awards you’ve earned.  And none of you sits here alone.  You sit here because of the family God has given you, the teachers, the mentors, the church, the heroes of your faith journey, and the gifts God has bestowed upon you. 
Our reading from I Samuel tells us that our God is a God of knowledge, that God is a rock like no other.  It tells us that God has set the pillars of the world, that God will guard the feet of his faithful ones, and break his adversaries.  Who you are is not nearly as important as whose, you are God’s child.
Your family knows this, your family off birth and your faith family, into which you were adopted in your baptisms and professions of faith, and your participation.  You have learned, as the writer of our Romans passage to let your love be genuine, to abhor evil, and to hold fast to that which is good.  You have learned to serve the Lord, to contribute to those in need, to seek to show hospitality, to bless those who persecute you, to weep with those who weep, to associate with the lowly.  Have you done this?  Will you always?
If your enemy is hungry, will you feed him?  If she is thirsty, will you give her something to drink?  Will you be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good?  Will you?  Will you?
I know you will.
Each of you has been a part of the crew in your life, in this faith community, in your schools, in your homes, in service to others.  You’ve learned to hoist the sails, to tie the knots, to work with others, to look out for one another, to pick up the slack, to take discipline and learn from it, to watch out for danger, to point it out to others, to fend for yourself, and to care for those in need, and… to find your way… together.  Each of you has been given opportunities to be the navigator.  After much learning, preparation, small tests, and evaluation, you’ve been entrusted to bear your own responsibilities… as you should… and to lead.  Most of you have helped to lead worship, to teach a Sunday school class or lesson, to tutor someone, to teach a skill on a worksite, or to impart wisdom about something important to a younger sibling, a classmate, or even us adults.
Like the Wayfinders, you’ve had to find your bearings, look to the horizon, look to the changing environment, find what’s familiar or new, rely on past experience, remember where you’ve been and who has sent you, and trust that you’ll be guided not just by your own knowledge, but by the Spirit that blows where God guides, and the rhythm of the waves that will carry you somewhere new.
My prayer for all of you is that you find a way… to see and remember where you’ve been… be aware of where you are… and learn to understand and strive for where God calls you to go.  I want you to see where you’ve been, know where you are, and discover where God is calling you next.  For you, too, are a Wayfinder…
I got married just a few weeks ago.  On our wedding day, I had a small present for Jessica.  I had found an artisan who stamps coordinates – latitude and longitude – onto small copper washers.  I added places of significance to us in our journey together thus far.  One was the place we met, another was our first date, first home we would share together, where we got married, and so on.  It was a way for her to look back and see where we have been, and to express a hope that we would add to this collection as we journeyed on in our future as a family together.  Where you have been and who has been with you is a strong indicator of where you will one day be and who you will become.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment.  It’s something Wayfinders must do often.  I want you to picture where you’ve been.  I’m sure many images could come to mind.  But I want you to remember landmarks.  I want you to remember your first introductions to God and faith.  Who was there?  Who taught you?  Who was with you?  Was it in class? Camp?  At home?  Your church home? 
What about the times of trial for you?  Were the same people there?  Did the lessons and love they shared with you bring you comfort or direction?  Are any of those people here with you today? 
And lastly, before you open your eyes, who do you imagine will be there in your next moments?  Have you met them yet?  Will it be your family and friends you know now?  Will it be God that you turn to when the seas are rough?  Will it be God you turn to in thanks when you reach your next destination or weather the storm and choppy water? I hope that it will be.  Now I want you in the congregation to keep your eye closed.  Graduates, open your eyes, stand, and turn around.  See all those here today.  These are people who have promised, and are promising today to love and nurture you and give you a home here whenever you return.  Take a good look.  Congregation – now you can open your eyes.  These young people are Wayfinders.  They are children of God.  They are your family.  It is up to you to make this a place that is always home for them, and to keep praying for them and teaching them lessons, and giving them a turn to navigate.  Graduates, you can sit.

The Wayfinders of Hawaii aboard the Hokule’a have more than a year left in their journey.  When they complete it, they will arrive… home.  That is the journey we are all on.  None of us is home yet.  But you have been given tools to use… your mind, your intellect, your education, the prophets, your savior and redeemer, your years of Sunday school and youth group and mission trip lessons, your mentors and loved ones… and an understanding that in prayer and daily seeking… God will guide you in the Spirit in every move you make, today, and evermore.  YOU are a Wayfinder… As you stand on your ships and look around you and feel the waves below your feet… We want you to see where you’ve been, know where you are, and discover where God is calling you next.  May all your journeys one day lead you home.

Benediction:  Sailors all know something we too often forget.  We think of wind and waves as obstacles to our journeys.  Sailors know you can get nowhere without the wind and waves.  They carry you to your destination.  The earliest Christians were known as "followers of the Way."  You are a Wayfinder.  As you go from this place and feel the waves move below you, remember that you go nowhere in your journey by accident, but that God has sent you, and you go nowhere alone, but that God's Spirit guides you... this day, and evermore.  And all God's children said... Amen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

So, You Think You're Friendly?

Hebrews 13:1
Romans 12:13
Luke 2:41-52

Soundcloud: Listen Here (note: manuscript and live recorded sermon are often very different)

So You Think You're Friendly

I’ve been asked multiple times if there will be any Star Wars references today.  Yoda have to come and find out.  But, there won’t be, I’m sorry.  I promise it won’t be a dark sermon, though, and I’ll keep things on the light side.  But I won’t force Star Wars on you.  That’s all I could master muster for one sermon.

Marhabaan  مرحبا 
Creoso    z`ViN`N
καλωσόρισμα   Kalós orísate
ברוך בואך  Baruch haba 
ようこそ  Yōkoso
Dobro pozhalovat   Добро пожаловат

I'm a student of languages.  I find them fascinating.  Many languages express things we do not have words for in English, emotions or concepts we struggle to relate or don't even consider.  If you do a little research, you'll find that every language has the concept and a word or phrase for WELCOME.

And most websites include this phrase in their "useful phrases to know" for almost all languages.  After hello, and some important questions, it's ranked highly for communication.  While its urgency may not rank with things like, where is the bathroom or what you'd like to eat, it is important enough to us as people to create a phrase and learn it and use it.

Something within us recognizes the importance of not just greeting those we know and love, but to make even the stranger feel at home.  And this is a calling to which God calls us quite clearly.

A recent experiment... VIDEO

This was an experiment by a for-profit company.  Not a charity, not a church.  It created a space in which strangers could meet and find common ground, form the basis for friendship with a stranger through mutual love of something outside of themselves, and to go away strengthened, and encouraged.  Now... The Church is FAR more than that.  But it has to be AT LEAST that.  Is it?  Is the Church as friendly as a street corner ball pit?  Is our church?  Shouldn't it be?

Someone once said home is the place you go and they have to let you in.  Like most things, it's funny because it is true.  But what about the people who aren't family?  Don't people become family?  Aren't there neighbors you trust with a key?  With house sitting?  

Those friends of you and your kids.  At some point, they stop being front door guests and start coming in the side or back door or garage.  They knock as they open the door or stop knocking altogether.  As you sit around the kitchen table for snacks and meals and holidays, you stop asking if they'd like a drink and they head for the fridge for what you have on hand, maybe only because they stop by for it.  You moms of teenagers stock your pantry this way.

How many conversations do you have with someone before they're an acquaintance?  A friend?  A family member?  Can they become a loved one without conversation?  Is there anyone in your life you'd call a loved one with whom you've never had a heart to heart?  Heard a secret?  Shared a secret?  Been vulnerable?  Trusted?  Revealed or unearthed?  I bet there isn't.  So do you think you can form a family of faith, a community of believers if you don't converse?  Step outside your comfort zone?  Find the common?  Do you think you're friendly?  Have you tried as hard as the people in this video to make a friend, a connection to someone new here at First Pres or new to you?  Have you tried to do that often?  Every Sunday?  Today?

Most of you know David Upton.  This is David’s home.  When I visited him last week and asked if we could bring him anything to make his new room feel like home, he asked for just one thing.  A picture of the church.  This place is home to him.  You all have made it that.  Will you make it that for others?

Today, you have a ball near you, hopefully enough in each row for everyone to have one. Your color is going to be your guide.  During the offertory, you'll have a chance to go to someone new or new to you, or at least that you don't know well.  I'll know if you're cheating.  ;-)

Colors = specific question. 

Red –             Your favorite Christmas tradition – and WHY?
Blue –            Your favorite dessert or treat… who makes it or where do you get it?
Yellow –        Who loves you the most?
Green –         What do you love to do most?
Purple –         What makes you feel welcome?

In just a moment, during the offertory, you'll go find someone and get them to answer your question and you'll answer theirs.  After the service, I will once again ask you to linger and find two more people for the same assignment.  You will leave here knowing 2 new people a little better.  And you'll be known.  Meaningfully, I hope.  You'll have started something that I pray you'll continue.

Christ's clear command to us to welcome the stranger.  Christ's call is to make disciples.  Christ's disciples were his friends, those he loved, those with whom he broke bread and went through triumphs and trials, parades and storms.  Isn't that what the Church is for?  Are we a street corner or are we a ball pit?  Are we friendly enough that disciples can be made here?  Do you think you're friendly?

Do you think you’re friendly?  Will you be?  If so, say we will!

You can be.  You can do all things in Christ.  He will strengthen you.  Amen.

Let's Ruin Christmas! (Christmas Eve Contemporary Service)

John 9:39
John 18:37
Luke 2:8-18

Soundcloud: Listen Here (note: manuscript and live recorded sermon are often very different)

Let's Ruin Christmas

I came to know this as a true story.  Some years ago, a little boy named Marvin wanted to be in his church's nativity play.  The boy's parents were concerned because he was mentally challenged.  But the volunteers in charge of the production took him on happily and made him an innkeeper.  His only line was simple and he rehearsed it for months, "There is no room in the inn!"

Christmas Eve arrived and parents, especially Marvin's.  He was excited to do his part.  The lights lowered, the play started.  When Joseph and a young Mary expecting a small pillow arrived at his door and knocked, Marvin answered.  The couple asked desperately, do you have a place for us to stay?  My wife is soon to deliver!  Marvin crossed his arms, puffed out his chest, scowled his mightiest, and delivered with a boom, "THERE IS NO ROOM IN THE INN!"

Audible sighs were heard, smiles beamed from his parents.  Joseph and Mary turned dejected and trudged slowly away...  Marvin looked on.  His arms uncrossed, his scowl dissolved.  His lip quivered.  And Marvin belted out with great urgency... "Oh come on in baby Jesus!  We'll find room for you!"

Marvin ruined the play.  Marvin.  Ruined.  Christmas.  Or did he really?  I don't think anyone there that night really thought so.  I don't think any of us do.  Because isn't the point of the whole blessed story to make room for Jesus?  Isn't Marvin infinitely more wise than any of us?  Wasn't he moved as we all should be moved?  Didn't he GET it like we all strive to every year?

We read the Christmas story.  We tell it.  God slips in.  God knocks.  And we have to invite God in.  Even at Easter, God must be welcomed, invited.


So Let's ruin Christmas!!!

Let's take a page from Marvin's book and turn everything on its head.  Let's RUIN Christmas like he did.

Instead of looking for the War on Christmas, let's look for ways to undermine it all, to ruin Christmas like Marvin did, by really getting it, by refusing to play along with the script, by bravely inviting God into our home and making room, whatever it takes!

Instead of trying to shove baby Jesus into stores and advertising and holiday greetings and onto the airwaves and into our trees and football games and into the stockings and onto the shelves, let's invite the Christ child into our hearts and homes.

As a Methodist billboard recently read across a picture of red Starbucks cups... It's not their job to tell people about Christ.  It's ours.  Isn't it?

If you ask your own children to name the things in the living room that need to be present for it to be Christmas, what would they name first?  What would definitely make the list?  The tree?  Lights?  Stockings?  What about Santa's plate?  Cookies?  Milk?  Carrot for the reindeer?  We had a placemat and plate and cup and saucer.  I still remember the whole setup. 

What about a nativity?  Could they name all the characters?  Do they know anything from the story about when they arrived or why they stayed in the animal pen?  What about an Advent calendar?  Do you read a Christmas story?  Watch one?  Do you read the Christmas story?  Will you tonight?

Tonight or tomorrow, will you invite someone to join your family or will you go to someone who must remain at their care facility or home or shelter or hospital room?  Will you make room in your celebrations to be like little Marvin and ruin Christmas by welcoming Christ, even when it all seems so full?  Will you find the time to invite the lonely, the broken, the hungry, those walking in darkness to be in the light of your love this day?

Let's ruin Christmas!  Let's do all those things!  Let's pick up the phone and reconnect with a family member or friend or get to know a neighbor or find a stranger in need.

You see, Jesus, I think, would have loved Marvin's style.  I do.  Jesus was always up for ruining things.  Not to be a jerk, but to draw attention to what has been missed.  We use symbols to MAKE meaning.  They're important.  But as wonderful as those symbols are and as useful as they can be, they must be done with care or they run the risk of hiding the meaning they were created to breathe life into.

Jesus saw how his own people had buried the meaning of the Temple in systems of robbery and extortion that grew out of the loving symbolic acts of sacrifice.  He turned over tables to ruin the system because the meaning had been lost.  I'm not saying you go full blown Grinch tonight and empty the fridge, rip down the stockings, and shove the Christmas tree up the chimb-ly.  But, rearranging furniture in a not so calm manner was not outside Christ's repertoire.

Christ ruined royal entrances, riding in on donkeys instead of horses and chariots.  He ruined places of worship.  He ruined the religious hierarchy, the Jewish patriarchy, the Roman polity, and every prejudice his people and the world had every concocted or carefully crafted.  ANd he ruined Christmas.  He came in as a baby, born in a feedbox, visited first by the smelliest, poorest people in town.  And then he and his refugee family took off for Egypt immediately, fleeing threat of death, so that the Magi had to come find him in a new land.

Several years ago now, I was alone in Denver for Christmas.  I expected to wake up Christmas morning, sit around with the cat and maybe go to a gathering in the afternoon that church friends had invited me to attend with their family, knowing I'd be by myself and unable to travel to see family.

Instead, a dear friend arrived on my doorstep with baking supplies to make blueberry muffins from scratch.  We baked all morning, went and acquired a giant box of coffee and cups, and then headed out to the snowy empty streets of town to the corners where homeless people waited cold and mostly unnoticed.  We brought our baked goods, piping hot coffee, and hugs, and we listened and laughed and prayed with everyone.  We learned the stories of so many that day and for the first time felt like maybe we had gotten Christmas more right than we had in years, or ever.

My friend ruined Christmas.  My friend shook me up and got me out on the street.  Our friends and family thought we were a little nuts.  I'm pretty sure everyone's reaction was, "didn't you have plans?  Weren't you with your loved ones?  Didn't you wanna see your brothers and sisters?"

We did.  My friend is my hero.

My other hero is St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas began his work when he noticed all the poor children who didn't have gifts to receive on Christmas, as had become a tradition.  He noticed they didn't have food or firewood either.  He loaded a sack and visited those in need.  Could there be a better example of faithfully following the call of Christ to notice our brothers and sisters, to love them, and to love them with a generosity of sharing all we have and are, the Good News we know, incarnate.

St.Nicholas, I am sure had family and friends and plans that day.  But he decided to chuck that, or at least, as Marvin would tell us... To make room for Jesus.  I like to think he invited his friends to be helpers... To not think of them-s-elves, but to fill a few bags, a few socks, a few hearts...

And can't we do that too?  Will you?  Will you make time tonight and tomorrow.  Will you make room?  Will you teach your children to make room and why?

Will you pitch in with St. Nick, with Marvin, with Jesus... Let's ruin Christmas.  Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Bouncing Off the Walls

Bouncing Off the Walls

Thanksgiving Eve Worship Service, November 25, 2015

Scripture References for Sermon… (Only those with a star were read aloud)…

Genesis 12:10 – Abraham from Famine
Genesis 12:1920 – Abraham from Pharaoh
Genesis 14:1112 – Lot from Invasion
Genesis 21:14-16 – Hagar & Ishmael from Persecution
Genesis 26:13 – Isaac & Rebecca from Persecution
Genesis 27:4244 – Jacob from Violence
Genesis 47:4 – Jacob from Famine
Genesis 36:7 – Esau from Scarcity & Conflict
Genesis 37:28 – Joseph from Human Trafficking
Exodus 12:41 – Moses & ALL of Israel from Religious Persecution & War
*Deuteronomy 10:1719 – How to Treat the Refugee
Ruth 1:1 – Naomi from Famine
2 Kings 17:23 – ALL of Israel from War & Conquest by Assyria
2 Kings 24:1415 – ALL of Israel from War & Conquest by Babylon
Esther 2:57 – Esther & Mordechai from War & Conquest
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego from War & Conquest
*Matthew 2:1314 – Jesus, Mary, & Joseph from Political Persecution
Acts 8:1 – The Early Church from Religious Persecution
Acts 11:19 – The Early Church from Religious Persecution
Acts 8:45 – Philip from Religious Persecution
Acts 12:17 – Peter from Religious Persecution
Acts 18:12 – Aquila & Pricilla from Religious Persecution
*Scriptures that were read before message.

 Deuteronomy 10:17‐19
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the refugee, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the refugee, therefore, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt.

Matthew 2:13‐14
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.

Bouncing off the walls.  That should be normal. But I'll come back to that.

There's a reason I had us sing that silly kid song.  When you’re happy and you know it, when you’re thankful and you know it… Most of us need a reminder of what it means to express ourselves.  Unless you are a musician or "professional" artist, you do not have many opportunities in our society to express yourself... your desires, your hopes, your frustrations.  And no, road rage and Facebook are not what I mean.

We take some healthy opportunities to do this.  We pack a box for Operation Christmas Child, say yes when Kathy Sang or Bob Harris call.  But we take so few opportunities to open ourselves completely to this world and then RESPOND in healthy ways, good ways, ways that show the truth of our faith, the good news we claim, but don't always PROCLAIM.

Bouncing off the walls.

This weekend, we waited to tell Vincent we were going to the RenFest till the last min, as all parents know.  When I walked in the door, he was already bouncing off the walls.  Not about the festival.  But because it was MY birthday.  Not his.  Mine.  When was the last time you bounced off the walls for someone else's birthday?  He had a piece of notebook paper on which he'd drawn me a card and couldn't wait for me to read it.  The walls came off the house when we then told him about the festival.

There's a link going around on Facebook that advertises Google will tell you your future.  If you click, it says, if you care this much about YOUR future, what about the future of others?  What about refugees?

It's a bold question for google.  It's basically a Jesus question.  How many times does Jesus ask his disciples or the religious leaders or the crowds, what about... those people?  What about God's prophets in the whole Old Testament, God's Apostles in the New Testament?

What reaction do you have to all the news?  Sadness?  Anger?  Did you care much at all till the issues was Syrians being resettled here?  Did that change your reaction?

Bouncing off the walls.  That was Vincent's reaction because he knows and loves me.  Do we know the Syrians?  DO we want to?

If you had to guess, what is going on over there?  Do you know?  DO you care?  Do you want to?  Do you have any idea where Syria is?  What’s happening?  How many people?

I want to introduce you to your brothers and sisters in Syria a little bit.  Of the recorded deaths (experts are certain the numbers are higher), 200,000 have been killed.  That's like someone coming to the US, killing every man, woman, and child in Rowan County and Davie, and probably heading down to Concord and doing the same.  Everyone.  Then, for good measure, displacing every single person in the middle and western 2/3rds of the state, and driving the other 1/3rd into other countries.  The entire state, over 10 million people.  Do you have some idea now?

Well, yeah, Brian, but which are Christian and which are Muslim?  That is SO not the question that Jesus ever asks, nor the prophets.  In fact, the opposite.  That list of scriptures in your bulletin are the complete list of our ancestors of the faith who fled and became refugees.  Jesus and his parents are ON that list.  Take a look.

And that's to say nothing of the TWENTY TWO references in scripture to LOVE the REFUGEE in your land.  These are not commands to love the other Jewish people in the neighboring country (or Christians).  It was a GUARANTEE in that day and age that the foreigner, the refugee was of another faith, probably an idol worshipper or polytheist or something far stranger or more barbaric.  These commands are to love and welcome and defend the foreigner, the refugee.  To rescue and provide sanctuary.  And I will tell you right now that God made that command to a people who had no capacity for background checks, to people who were not protected by being surrounded by other countries and oceans and thousands of miles, but to a people right on the front lines, neighbors.

So certainly the loudest voices after these atrocities in a world so full of Christians would be words of welcome and hospitality, right???  Or at the very least, the loud voices of opposition would be from atheists or people of other faiths telling us Christians to not be so naive and foolish and risky!  Certainly any national leader or politician to be quoted in the paper or on TV as denying asylum to the MILLIONS in need would never claim the radical faith we claim and PROCLAIM through our actions of love and hospitality.  Right?

Certainly the worriers and the wise among us who have concerns would be spending all their creativity and resources on SOLUTIONS and ways to provide the love and welcome and sanctuary we are called to as Christians?

Certainly, we would consider the refusal to welcome middle-eastern families with children knocking at our door with the answer, "there's no room here," would be considered the real war on Christmas...  Right?

But Brian, I really do love my neighbor.  I do love the Lord and want to do as he calls me to do, but I'm scared.  Good.  That's honest.  And if you're not scared, you've gotten far too comfortable in your faith.  The Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, his brother, the disciples, the prophets, do we assume they were not scared?  No.  They just knew that to cling to this life more fiercely than the truth we have had revealed is to have no faith at all.  We are not a people of fear, but of faith.  And do we have a faith that we claim, or a faith we PROclaim?  Is it a faith that we intellectually assert and post about and use for guidance, or is it a faith we proclaim in word and deed?  Is it a faith that reminds us to buy a birthday card out of obligation or a faith that has us bouncing off the walls?

At a time when most of Christians are either terrified of who may arrive in our country and what they may do, or we remain blissfully unaware of our brothers and sisters knocking at the door this advent... one little boy in Texas showed a little light to remind us what it's like to be grateful for all the blessings we have and to SHOW it, to be a bouncing off the walls believer...

In the same week that the governor of Texas wrote a letter to the President refusing to accept Syrian refugees in his small state, a mosque was vandalized.  SEVEN year old, Jack heard this news and with the help of his mother, approached Naeem, a board member of the mosque, at the mosque in Pflugerville (a suburb of Austin, where I was born) with his piggy bank, the contents of which totaled about $20.  His mother said that they wanted to show them that what's not happening in Paris is NOT what is happening in Pflugerville. Said Naeem, "Jack’s $20 are worth $20 million to us because it’s the thought that counts,” Naeem said in an interview with ABC News. “Jack is a just a little older than my son, Ibrahim. If we have more kind-hearted kids like them in the world, I have hope for our future."

Jack has a bouncing off the walls faith. Jack is known all over Texas and the world now for his act of love. Will we be known for our security or our love? Our hate or our hospitality? Our fear or our faith? I don't know the name of the innkeeper in Bethlehem who let a young Middle Eastern family into his barn. Maybe history will not remember my name either. But I'd rather be nameless and famous for my compassion… than famous for my refusal to accept the refugee in my land when the prophets tell me my people were once wanderers too. So if you are thankful and you know it, SHOW it.  Don’t claim your faith only, but PROCLAIM it.  As for me and my household, we will be believers who bounce off the walls for our faith. Amen.