Elements of Worship: Relationship

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  Part 5 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 5:23-26.

I saw a thing online this week that was kind of funny and cynical all at the same time:

“Marriage: Betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever.”

Kind of harsh isn’t it?  It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  That hasn’t been my experience of marriage (for the most part).  Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that.  I think most of us would probably agree that any person who takes that sentence as his or her main idea about marriage is probably pretty confused about what love really is.

Then again, I think it’s more than fair to say that you and I live in a society that, as a whole, is also pretty confused about what love really is.  The evidence you can gather in a single hour of primetime television or pop radio would be more than sufficient to demonstrate what I’m talking about.  We might all laugh at the idea that marriage is “betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever” but there are some other fairy tale proverbs out there that people in our society buy into hook, line, and sinker without even thinking.  At no time of year is this insanity more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

For example, when two people are in a relationship (let’s just assume they’re young) and one of them says to a parent, “Mom/Dad: how will I know when I’m really in love?  How will I know when I’ve found the one?”  What do people usually tell them?  “You’ll just know.”  What kind of malarkey is that?  I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide about asking Sarah to marry me, I was a nervous wreck!  I didn’t know anything!  On the one hand, I had this great relationship with someone I really cared about.  On the other hand, I was so scared that I couldn’t even see straight.  And it’s not like one outweighed the other or one canceled the other out.  Love in one hand.  Fear in the other.  Both existing in the same place at the same time.  “You’ll just know”?  There was no “knowing” about it.  Just a choice: Love or Fear.

Here’s another crazy one that you hear sometimes: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Who in the world came up with that?  Well, I did a little homework.  As it turns out, that line comes from a 1970 movie called Love Story.  The main character (whose name just so happens to be Barrett), played by the actor Ryan O’Neal, says it at the very end of the movie.  What I find particularly funny is that this same actor, Ryan O’Neal, was in another movie called What’s Up, Doc? With Barbara Streisand.  Barbara repeats the line and Ryan O’Neal, in a beautiful moment of self-parody, responds, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”  I couldn’t agree more.

If anything, real love should make us more ready to say “I’m sorry.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  It’s a choice that we make once, accepting the reality that we will have to make that same choice again and again for the rest of our lives.  A big part of choosing love over fear (in marriage, church, work, or family) involves our willingness to seek and offer forgiveness when things go wrong.  It’s easy to talk about love when everything is going great, but it’s something else entirely to love someone when everything has gone wrong.  The process of seeking and offering forgiveness is more broadly referred to as reconciliation.  Reconciliation is love in action.  It’s what happens when the rubber meets the road in real life and real relationships.  Anyone who has really experienced it can tell you that reconciliation is the single most miraculous event that can happen in any human relationship.

I have a hunch that that’s why the ancient Jews and Christians zeroed in on reconciliation as their primary metaphor for describing what happens in the relationship between God and creation.  They called it redemption or salvation.  The early Christians thought of this relationship as taking place in and through this person named Jesus.  Jesus was more than just an inspirational philosopher to them.  They saw something unique in him that they identified with the God of their Jewish ancestors.  This identification was so strong that the early Christians would say that to look at Jesus was to look at God.  If you want to understand what God is like, they said, just look at Jesus.

They used all kinds of poetic metaphors to describe the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus: it was like being healed from a sickness, raised from the dead, or freed from captivity.  It was like being blind, and then being able to see.  It was like being hopelessly lost, but then finding your way again.  These were all valid metaphors for describing their experience of the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus.  But the mental image they used most often was that of reconciliation.  It was the most amazing and miraculous thing that could happen between two people, to be at odds with one another and then make peace, so it made sense for that idea to quickly rise to the top and become the dominant metaphor for describing what was happening in their new and growing relationship with God.

This was and is a beautiful thing.  Christians to this very day tend to think of their relationship with God in the same way.  The only problem is that, when forgiveness and reconciliation becomes the only metaphor for describing our relationship with God, it can easily become twisted into something it was never meant to be.  The sole emphasis on forgiveness as a metaphor for salvation led, over the centuries, to an obsession with guilt and sin.  Salvation, they thought, was all about getting your sins forgiven.  In other words, it’s all about getting back on God’s good side so that nothing bad will happen to us after we die.  Christians began to think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  Theirs was an unhealthy obsession with guilt and fear that, I think, led to a gross distortion of who God is and what salvation is really all about.

I don’t think we’re “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  I think our ancestors in the faith took the most beautiful moment in a human relationship and applied it to their relationship with God.  If we’re going to recover reconciliation as our primary metaphor for salvation, I think we need to let go of our baggage of guilt and fear.  We need to remember that reconciliation begins with God, whose love is unconditional.  Our trust in that love is what gives us the strength to be honest about who we really are and what we need to work on.

That’s why we confess our sins at the beginning of worship each week.  It’s not about guilt and fear; it’s about honesty and trust.  Knowing that we are loved (no matter what) is the key to owning up to our faults.  We have nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of.

As this great love gives us the power to make peace with ourselves, we are also commissioned and ordained as peacemakers in the world.  Once we have experienced that love for ourselves, we are called upon to pass it on.  Have you ever noticed how the passing of the peace in our service is supposed to happen right after our prayer of confession?  That’s no coincidence.  We receive God’s love and then we immediately give it away.  Love begets love.  Grace begets more grace.  Jesus told his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Jesus took the idea of reconciliation quite seriously.  For him, it even trumped the importance of a worship service.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  This call to peacemaking and reconciliation is so important that Jesus was even willing to interrupt a worship service for it.  Real love should be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”.  This is love in action, not just feeling.

It’s worth mentioning that this peacemaking is not always easy.  It gets complicated.  Nowhere is it more difficult than it is for those who find themselves in physically or psychologically abusive situations at work or home.  The call for forgiveness can too often be manipulated by abusers who merely want to maintain power over their victims.  “C’mon,” they say, “can’t you just forgive me?  Don’t you believe in forgiveness?  What would Jesus do?”  They might even quote scripture to back up what they’re saying.  If you’re dealing with that kind of person: get out of the relationship.  You can’t work toward forgiveness and reconciliation if you’re still in a position where you or others are in danger of being hurt.  You can’t forgive that person until you’re safe.  Get to safety first, then work on forgiveness.

What’s more is that forgiving does not mean forgetting.  I don’t know where “forgive and forget” came from, but I can guarantee you that it’s not in the Bible.  God would never want you to put yourself or your dependents back into a dangerous situation.  Sometimes, the best way to forgive is from a distance.  Don’t put yourself in jeopardy.  Make peace in your heart as best you can.  I promise you: it still counts.

Real love is able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  Each week in worship, we re-enact a powerful ritual of redemption.  In our prayer of confession, we are empowered by God’s unconditional love to honestly face ourselves (warts and all), trust that we are loved anyway, and then go back out into the world as peacemakers and agents of reconciliation.  God is not concerned about guilt and fear-mongering over what particular sins you may have committed last week.  The quality of our relationship with God is measured by the quality of our relationships with one another.  One surefire way to measure the actual quality of our relationships with one another is to look at how willing and able we are to say things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to one another.  This is love in action.  It raises us above our culture’s twisted ideas about love and brings us back to a place where we can experience what real love between people is all about.  And that, of course, points us right back to God’s infinite and unconditional love, in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Elements of Worship: Sacrament

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is I Corinthians 11:23-26.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org


“Bless you!”

Gyula Derkovits, 'The Last Supper'

Do you know why people say that when someone sneezes?  The practice goes back almost to the time of Christ, but nobody knows for sure how or why it got started.  There are a number of interesting theories out there.  Some think it started during an outbreak of the bubonic plague as a way of commending people to God’s care when nothing more could be done for them (i.e. “It’s been nice knowing you”).  Tibetan Buddhists believed that sneezing provides a moment of “clear consciousness” (like dying, falling asleep, or meditating) during which one might be able to achieve Enlightenment.  But my favorite explanation is this one: when you sneeze, your soul is temporarily dislodged from your body.  The blessing makes it go back in so that the devil won’t come and possess you.

That’s just one example of the kinds of crazy superstitions that we got rid of at the end of the middle ages in western society.  We might still say “bless you” when somebody sneezes, but I seriously doubt that anyone still believes that it’s your soul trying to leave your body.  We needed to get rid of that superstition (along with several others).  I, for one, am glad that our society no longer burns women at the stake because “they might be witches.”

The light of reason brought us out of those dark ages and into the modern era, where humanity has grown by leaps and bounds.  We’ve landed on the moon and created a global communication network so efficient that I could just flip out my phone and have a conversation with someone in India if I felt like it.  Letting go of these old superstitions has, on the whole, been a good thing.  But, like everything else in this world, our so-called Enlightenment has its dark side.  We now live in a world that is “disenchanted”.  We’ve lost that sense of meaning and connectedness with the world around us.  We no longer see spirits and fairies in the trees and rivers.  If we think of God at all, it is as some distant and abstract Creator who has little or nothing to do with the world as we know it.  Naïve superstition gives way to cynical materialism and we see ourselves as random collections of atoms that just conveniently happen to make consciousness possible.  The world around us becomes an empty shell of resources just waiting to be exploited for profit.  Human life becomes equally meaningless under this mindset.  What matters is gaining the upper hand in the ongoing battle for survival (which we all eventually lose).

In reaction to this sinister cynicism, some religious folks have chosen to side with the aforementioned distant Creator.  They gather round their campfires and sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” and “Some bright morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.”  These folks want to save their souls from this wicked world in order to enjoy the blessings of some far-off heaven for eternity.  This perspective may seem more like faithfulness at first, but it nevertheless leaves this world looking just as empty and meaningless as cynical materialism does.  It is the advocates of this kind of escapism who shout things like, “Drill, baby drill!” and figure, “This whole world is going to hell anyway, so why bother to take care of it?”

We needed to drop the ridiculous superstition of the middle ages, but I wonder if maybe we threw out the baby with the bathwater?  Secular and religious folks alike have lost all sense of connectedness to God, the earth, and each other.  Both sides are saying that this earth just doesn’t matter.

Is there some way to reconnect with that larger sense of meaning and mystery in the cosmos without going back to that ridiculous superstition?  I think so.

We’re currently in the middle of a five-week sermon series on the Elements of Worship.  We’ve already looked at the Word, prayer, and service as Elements of Worship.  Next week, we’ll be talking about relationship.  This week, we’re talking about sacrament.

The word sacrament comes from a Latin word that means mystery.  When Christians talk about sacraments, they’re typically referring to one of two church events: Baptism and the Eucharist (a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion).  A few weeks ago, we had a service where talked about the sacrament of Baptism at length in the sermon.  We even baptized three new people into our congregation.  So this week, I’m mainly going to focus on sacrament of the Eucharist (which we happen to be celebrating in our service later today).

In the sacrament (mystery) of the Eucharist, we celebrate three realities.  First, we remember Jesus: who he is and what he did.  Jesus revealed the heart of God to the world in a way that no one else ever has.  He “gave himself for us” in a life of service and love.  We participate in that act of self-giving when we remember him and receive his gift of himself, his body and blood, into our own bodies.

Second, we participate in a present reality.  Remember the old saying, “You are what you eat”?  Well, it’s true.  We are the body of Christ.  Through him, we are also part of each other: one loaf, one cup, one body, one family.  They also say that “blood is thicker than water”.  In this case, the blood of Christ is thicker than our own blood.  The blood of Christ flows in our veins.  Gone is any illusion of pedigree, race, nationality, status, or caste.  As Christians, this is where our loyalty lies.  This is where our true identity is to be found.  Blood is thicker than water and this blood is thickest of all.  When we target, discriminate against, or otherwise antagonize those who have been to the table of Christ with us, we are turning our backs on our own kin.  This is a truth worth remembering whenever we are next tempted to divide the world into “us” and “them”.

Finally, Christians at the Lord’s table anticipate the future with hope.  Christ told his disciples that he would drink wine with them next when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness.  The end of history is often described in the scriptures as a fully-catered wedding reception.  The bread and wine we now eat and drink around this table is a foretaste of that coming celebration when all things are made new, justice and equality are established on earth, and (as it says in Revelation) “God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  When the tides of despair threaten to overwhelm us, we have these edible tokens to hold onto.  They are the aperitifs of the heavenly banquet.

In the Eucharist, we are fed with spiritual food.  This sacrament, I think, holds the key to reconnecting us with our lost sense of wonder and mystery.  Without it, Christian faith too easily becomes just one more product for sale in the modern marketplace of ideas.  With it, we are able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Through this sacrament, we touch the mystery of Love that springs from the very heart of the universe and reaches out to its edges.  Just as we say in the Great Thanksgiving, I invite you to “Lift up your hearts” to see that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory”.

How do we do this?  How can we “lift up our hearts”?  Well, I think we can start by simply celebrating the sacrament as often as we can.  As recently as the 1970s, most Presbyterian congregations celebrated the Eucharist only four times a year.  Since then, the frequency has increased.  Most of our churches celebrate it monthly.  More and more, there are churches in our denomination that are beginning to celebrate the sacrament on a weekly basis.  In our church, that is a decision for the session of elders to make.  I would like to encourage those of you who are currently serving as elders to meditate on this and consider increasing the frequency with which we celebrate communion.  In our Book of Order it says that the Eucharist “shall be celebrated regularly and frequently enough so that it is clear to all that the Lord’s Supper is integral to worship, and not an addition to it.”

We Presbyterians are used to thinking of our Sunday worship as revolving around the central event of reading and preaching God’s Word.  This is true.  But it’s also true that we worship in a binary system.  Our liturgy revolves around the twin stars of Word and Sacrament.  They are meant to go together.  John Calvin, one of the founders of our tradition, urged his churches in Geneva to celebrate Communion weekly.  Calvin told them that, yes, the scriptures make up the foundation of the church, but the sacraments are its pillars.  The church won’t stand up without both to support it.  Let’s make sure that we are not starving ourselves of Christ’s spiritual food and drink.

The moment of real transformation comes when we begin to see the presence of Christ, not just in this bread and wine, but everywhere we look.  This is what it means to “lift up your hearts” and see that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory,” as it says in the liturgy.  The more regularly we honor the presence of the sacred mystery in this bread, the more we will begin to see it in all bread.  And we will see that, like this consecrated bread, all bread is meant to be shared.  So let’s share our bread with those who are hungry.  And I’m not just talking about literal bread either: let’s share the bread of freedom and equality with all.  Let’s learn to share the bread of work, education, healthcare, and housing with those who are also our brothers and sisters.  They are God’s children and we are one family.  This sharing is a sacramental sharing.  It’s an integral part of what we do here on Sunday.

This whole universe is sacred.  It is infused with divine glory from stem to stern.  Our celebration of the sacraments helps us reconnect with that mystery.  Let’s make that connection as deeply and as often as possible, so that it might stay with us as we go out from this place to share our bread with the hungry and be the body of Christ in the world.

Lift up your hearts.  Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.  Let us give thanks.

Elements of Worship: Service

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  Part 3 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 16:21-28.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org.

Star Trek's George Takei (Mr. Sulu). Image by Gage Skidmore.

Did you know that there’s a civil war going on in our country right now?  I’m serious.  There is.  It’s been happening for over thirty years.  Unlike the last Civil War, this one isn’t between the North and South.  You might be thinking, “He means the war between the political Right and the political Left.”  Nope.  Black and White?  Nope.  Haves and Have-nots?  Not even close.  Right now, I’m talking about the bitter divide that exists between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans.  The geeks and nerds community is a house divided against itself.  My fellow Americans, this cannot be!

I feel so torn in this conflict.  The fight between Star Trek and Star Wars runs right through the center of my own heart.  I dream of one day being beamed aboard the starship Enterprise so that I too can “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  At the same time, I also fantasize about trained as a Jedi by Obi Wan Kenobi.  How can they ask me to choose sides between these two epic artifacts of science fiction lore?

Fortunately, there is one person out there who has issued a call for “Star Peace” and it’s none other than George Takei, the original Mr. Sulu on Star Trek.  He’s calling for a “Star Alliance” of fans from Star Trek and Star Wars who are willing to put aside their differences and fight the real threat to good science fiction: Twilight.  You may have seen the Twilight books and films being advertised in recent years.  For those who haven’t experienced it, Twilight, in George Takei’s own words, is all about “Vampires who sparkle and mope and go to high school.”  In Twilight, according to Takei, there is no “sense of heroism, camaraderie, and epic battle… There are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had… In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’”

Now, I don’t actually care if people like Twilight.  So why am I telling you this?  Why am I taking time out of my sermon to drag you down this wormhole into the darkest depths of the nerd kingdom?  Because I’m very intrigued by the way in which Mr. Takei has criticized Twilight.  Let me give it to you again in his words:

Gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle.  In its place we have vampires that sparkle and mope and go to high school… there are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had in Twilight.  No.  In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’

What Mr. Takei is saying, in so many words, is that good stories are always bigger than the people in them.

As it is in science fiction, so it is in real life.  Imagine those who live entirely selfish lives with no connection to anyone or anything other than that which maximizes their own personal profit.  The thrill of financial stability lasts for a little while, but wears thin eventually.  Who can’t think of tabloid headlines depicting any number of celebrity scandals brought on by conspicuous consumption and wanton indulgence?  Despite its material benefits, I think most of us can agree that such a life does not sound ultimately appealing.  Something deep within us longs to be part of a bigger story than that of our own little lives.

We’ve been talking about the Elements of Worship these past few weeks at our church.  On the first week, we talked about the Word of God as an Element of Worship.  Last week we talked about Prayer.  If you missed either of those sermons, you can listen to them on our website at www.fpcboonville.org.  In coming weeks, we will discuss Sacrament and Relationship as Elements of Worship.  This week, we’re talking about Service as an Element of Worship.

“Service” is a word that we use a lot.  If you go out to a restaurant where the staff is friendly and the refills keep coming, you’re probably going to say, “Wow!  This place has really good service!”  And what will you do next?  You’ll probably leave a bigger tip.  Isn’t that interesting?  A waiter brings his whole self to work, welcomes customers with genuine personal warmth, and people just naturally respond with generosity.  Remember that point because it will become important later.  Here’s another example: When a person is a soldier or sailor in some branch of our country’s armed forces, we say that she is “in the service.”  In other words, she dedicates her whole self to the cause of national defense by risking her life in a combat zone.  We tend to respect that, don’t we?  A lot of people wear yellow ribbons that say, “Support the Troops.”

In the same way, when we talk about service as an Element of Worship, we’re talking about more than this one-hour-per-week ritual that we do on Sunday mornings in this building.  We’re talking about more than the cash we fork over in the collection plate.  We’re even talking about more than the time and energy that so many of you tirelessly volunteer for our various church projects during the year.  Just like that waiter or soldier, real service happens when you offer your whole self to something bigger than you.  Service, as an Element of Worship, is a self-offering.

As Christians, we see our self-offering as connected to and growing out of the self-offering of Jesus.  His life, death, and resurrection provide us with a lens through which we can come to understand what it means to give ourselves as an offering.

First, his life.  Jesus gave himself as an offering in two ways.  He offered himself to God and he offered himself to others.  These two ideas cannot be separated.  Jesus believed that God is Love, therefore you can’t love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving your neighbor as yourself.  If you try to do one without the other, you’re going to end up very confused about what love is.

Jesus’ commitment to love (in this dual sense) got him into trouble on more than one occasion.  He exposed the hypocrisy of the powers that be.  He threatened the security of religious and political authorities in ways that no terrorist ever could.  Leaders in the public and private sectors alike were so frightened by what Jesus stood for that they even temporarily put aside their mutual hatred for each other in a grand conspiracy to have him killed.

Under these circumstances, no one would have blamed Jesus for mounting a defensive strategy in order to ensure his own survival, but that’s not what he does.  It says in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus walks straight into the belly of the beast, knowing full-well what the beast is about to do to him.

Jesus was not so caught up in his own ego that he wasn’t willing to offer himself.  He knew that his personal story was part of the universe’s bigger story.  Sure, he could pick up a sword and fight for his own survival, but he knew that survival isn’t everything.  His fellow Jews were fighting for their survival every day and, ironically, it was killing them.  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he said.

So, instead of the path of survival, Jesus opted for the path of self-offering.  He lived his life of love as an offering to God and others.  When that love brought him into conflict with powerful forces that wanted to kill him, he walked the way of the cross and let them do their worst.  But that’s not the end of the story.

What happens next is the best part.  We celebrate it every year at Easter time.  The offering turned into a miracle.  Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, three women found an empty tomb.  And an angel asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!”  This is where the big story really gets going.  Death itself starts to unravel like an ugly old sweater.  The powers that be were vanquished by the power of love.  Christians remember this event annually as our most sacred holiday.  We celebrate it weekly in order to remind ourselves of what we really believe in.  As Christians, we don’t believe in survival; we believe in resurrection.  That is the true meaning of service (self-offering) as an Element of Worship.  Jesus taught us that.

What does this look like for us?  That’s a great story about Jesus, but how can we live lives of self-offering and resurrection today?  Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  The way of the cross is a path, not just for Jesus, but for all of us as well.  We who claim to follow him must decide whether we will choose survival (like the world) or resurrection (like Jesus).

When we choose to follow the way of the cross, we become part of a story that’s bigger than us.  We say that we are willing to jeopardize our survival for something more important.  It’s a dangerous move to make, but if we move in faith, we see miracles.  I once heard someone say that, until you find something worth dying for, you’re not really living.  Are we really living?  Are you?  What are you willing to die for?  What is this church willing to die for?  When we find an answer to that question, we’ll learn what resurrection is really all about.  Like George Takei was saying: there we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  There there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

I heard a story this week from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, the senior minister at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK.  He said their church made a rather controversial decision several years ago.  They decided to take all the money that came into the church through their collection plate (about $20,000 per year) and give it away.  People were scared because that’s a lot of money.  The church depended on that money for their operating costs.  But they decided it was the right thing to do, so they amended their budget and went for it.  In that first year, rather than the $20,000 that usually came in through the collection plate, they raised $150,000 and gave it all away.  Now, you might say, “That’s great, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t meet their budget.”  Actually, according to Marlin, they did meet their budget that year.  They even took in about 10% more than they needed.  “Generosity begets generosity,” Marlin said.  Remember what I said about the waiter?  When somebody serves from the heart and offers him/herself, aren’t you just naturally inclined to leave a bigger tip?  Generosity begets generosity.

Let’s find another example, maybe one that’s a little closer to home.  I’ve mentioned this already, but I can’t help bragging on you folks again.  You remember this past Christmas Eve, right?  We heard about a crisis in our community where the county government was cutting funding to daycare programs.  Hundreds of kids were being affected and some of the most reputable and affordable daycare agencies were in danger of closing.  And the elders of our church voted unanimously to take the collection from Christmas Eve, our single biggest worship service of the year, and send the whole thing to one of those struggling daycare agencies.  Did you know that, with what came in that night, our little country church was able to cut a check for $1,000 to Thea Bowman House?  We’ve never taken up a Christmas Eve collection that big!  Generosity begets generosity.  Did you know that there are people in the community who noticed what we did and decided to join our church because of it?  That’s resurrection in action.

One more story about you folks.  Last summer, controversy was in the air as New York state was making a decision about legalizing same-sex marriage.  I drove down to Albany that week and stood in the halls of the state capitol building.  I saw the crowds of people shouting and holding signs with Bible verses about hellfire and damnation.  During that time, our little church took a stand.  We stood up and said, “All God’s children are created equal: black or white, male or female, gay or straight.”  At a church supper only two weeks before that happened, one of our own long-time church members came out of the closet to us at a church supper.  He shared his story with us.  And I remember the first thing that anybody said, after a long silence, was, “Well, God don’t make no junk!”  Our church took a stand.  We made a statement that this is a welcoming church.  We told the world that this church is a place where the law of love trumps the letter of the law.

Sure, it was a controversial thing to do.  It still is.  Our survival instinct might tell us to keep quiet and not rock the boat, because we don’t want to lose church members to controversy.  But you all chose resurrection instead of survival.  Did you know that people in the community noticed what we did?  On the very next Sunday after the legislation passed in Albany, a news crew surprised us during our morning worship.  They had TV news cameras set up right here in the sanctuary.  People heard about our little country church and said, “What?  A church that accepts and welcomes gay and lesbian people?  A church that believes that God loves everybody?  We’ve got to check this out!”  In the past few months, families have driven in from as far away as Utica to visit our church.  We didn’t lose people by being controversial, we gained them!  That’s resurrection in action!

And let me tell you what: we’re going to keep doing it.  We’re going to open the doors of this church so wide that the whole world will know it’s welcome here.  There are a lot of churches in Boonville, but there’s not very many where people can go and know they’ll be loved and accepted no matter who they are.  But people know they’re welcome here.  This sermon is being played on the radio, so even more people will know after this week.  I know it’s controversial but I don’t care (and neither should you).  Just like Jesus, we are offering ourselves to God and our neighbors.  We are choosing resurrection over survival.

When we go downstairs after worship today, we’ll be hearing our annual reports from all our different church committees.  We’ll be voting on this year’s budget and deciding our thoughts together for 2012.  As you look at the paperwork and hear the reports, I want you to remember what service and self-offering are really all about.  I want to invite you to look past your ego-driven instinct for survival and look to your God-given faith in resurrection.  That, more than anything else, will make a difference for the future of our church.  Like George Takei was saying: here we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  Here there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

Here is a video of George Takei’s call for Star Peace:

Elements of Worship: Prayer

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  2nd of 5 in a series on the Elements of Worship.

The text is Matthew 6:5-15.

Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian social reformer, once said something quite profound when someone asked him what he thought of Christianity.  He said, “I like your Christ but I don’t like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  In a similar vein, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said to a group of Christians (in his typically caustic fashion), “Yuck, you make me sick!  Because you redeemed don’t look like you’re redeemed!”

While these comments are more than a little bit harsh, I think we Christians have to admit they are also more than a little bit true.  For a long time, Christians have held onto a crazy idea that we are the guardians of infallible doctrine and impeccable morals.  The end result of this idea is that the rest of the world has come to see Christians, not as messengers of good news and amazing grace, but as “sour-faced saints” with their halos screwed on just a little too tight.  Under these circumstances, church becomes little more than a “holy club” for people with an answer for every question and a solution to every problem.

Is this who we’re meant to be?  I think not.  Consider Nietzsche and Gandhi’s words in reverse: how would you describe someone who “looks like” he or she is “redeemed”?  Can you imagine what it would be like to live in moment-to-moment awareness of the truth that within, behind, and beyond the apparently random facts of life there is, at the very heart of the universe, a “Love that will not let me go”?

Christians (in their better moments) believe there has been at least one such life in the course of human history.  By this, I am referring of course to the life of Jesus.  Folks come out in droves to celebrate with us at Christmas and Easter the beginning and the end of Jesus’ thirty-something years on Earth (and we’re delighted to welcome them on those days).  But there are, of course, fifty other Sundays of the year when we celebrate everything that happened in the middle!  Jesus’ amazing life is something worth remembering, celebrating, and imitating all year long.  There is something so wonderful about the life of Jesus that even Gandhi, a devout Hindu, sat up and took notice.

“I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”

What was it about the life of Jesus that caught Gandhi’s attention?  What kind of moment-to-moment awareness of Love’s presence did Jesus live with?  One phrase that he liked to use more than any other was “the kingdom of heaven.”  For him, this wasn’t some far away realm where angels played harps on clouds, but a very present reality.  For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was very near, “at hand,” closer to every atom than its own nucleus, closer to every person than her own soul.  If you asked him to describe it, he would start telling stories about the things he saw around him.  Jesus saw heaven everywhere: a farmer sowing seed, a woman baking bread, a merchant buying pearls, a shepherd tending sheep, a woman sweeping her house out, birds that nest, seeds that grow, and flowers that bloom.  For Jesus, the question isn’t “where is heaven?”  For Jesus, the question is “where isn’t heaven?”  This is the kind of life that Jesus lived: a moment-to-moment awareness of the truth that within, behind, and beyond the apparently random facts of life there is, at the very heart of the universe, a “Love that will not let me go.”

“Believe the good news,” he said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This week is the second in a five week series of sermons on the elements of worship.  We’re looking at who, what, when, and where but also (most importantly) why we do what we do each week in church.  Last week, we talked about the Word of God, found in (but not mistaken for) the words of the scriptures, which forms a kind of central fulcrum around which the rest of our liturgy revolves.  This week, we’re talking about prayer.  In the coming weeks, we’ll cover service, sacrament, and relationship.

I began this week’s discussion on prayer by describing the kind of life that Jesus lived: a life of moment-to-moment spiritual awareness.  In doing this, I kind of started at the end.  This is the point to which we will return.  This moment-to-moment spiritual awareness, demonstrated and embodied in the life of Jesus, is the purpose of all prayer and the final destination of every praying person.

But before we get back to that central point: a few words about what prayer is not.  First, prayer is not magic.  There are many churches and organizations out there who teach that if you pray for something long enough, hard enough, or in a particular way, you will (or should) always get what you want.  Many prominent televangelists and proponents of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” have made use of this idea as a fund-raising strategy.  The most corrupt among them have willingly and knowingly manipulated people into giving up their money as a “seed of faith” in exchange for some sort of miracle.  A private investigation of one such organization during the 1990s found that the donations were being sent to a bank where the checks were deposited and prayer requests were simply thrown into the trash.

A further problem with the “prayer is magic” approach is how it deals with the inevitable question: “What happens when we don’t get what we pray for?”  This is not so big a deal when we’re talking about some trivial thing that the heart desires, but it becomes a big deal when we’re praying about things that really do matter: What happens when the cancer doesn’t go into remission?  What happens when the child isn’t found alive?  These are big questions that make a big problem for those who subscribe to the idea that prayer is magic.  Sadly, there are those in this group who answer this question by blaming the victim.  “Oh well,” they say, “I guess you just didn’t have enough faith.”  If you’ve ever had someone say that to you, let me be blunt and tell you that it’s nothing but a load of baloney.  It’s a lie from the pit of hell.  Don’t believe it.  There are many stories in the gospels of Jesus working miracles for people, but never once does he look an individual person in the eye and say, “Go away.  You don’t have enough faith.”  Don’t take my word for it, go and look it up for yourself.

In response to this obviously destructive idea that prayer is magic, many other folks have adopted the very modern notion that prayer isn’t actually anything at all.  They would say that prayer is a placebo.  For those who might not be familiar with that term, the Placebo Effect is an event that doctors have noticed during clinical trials of experimental medications.  When they’re testing a new drug, they run a test where half of the people are given the real medicine and the other half are given a sugar pill (i.e. placebo) that looks like the real thing but doesn’t actually do anything to your body.  Nobody knows which pill they’re getting.  What the doctors found is that the patients who received the placebo nevertheless showed signs of improvement.  The mind was tricked into believing that it was receiving a new medical treatment that would make the body feel better.  So strong was this mental expectation that the body responded by feeling better, even when there was no actual medicine involved.  This is known as the Placebo Effect.

Those who view prayer as a placebo see it in the same way.  They think that prayer is just a mental exercise that people undertake in order to make themselves feel better.  It would be foolish, they say, to think that God would intervene to make a difference in human circumstances.  Honestly, the idea that prayer is a placebo makes me just as uncomfortable as the idea that prayer is magic.  I have a hard time believing that this universe is a closed and mechanical system with nothing beyond itself.  I think that God is real, that God does care about our pain, and that God does make a difference in this world.  I feel stuck between unfounded idealism on the one hand and hard-nosed cynicism on the other.  I can’t claim to have the final answer to this conundrum, but I have a hunch that the reality of prayer is actually a mystery that somehow encompasses and yet transcends both of ends of the ideological spectrum.

The Presbyterian Book of Order defines prayer as “a conscious opening of the self to God.”  I really like that.  It reminds me of the first verse from our beloved hymn: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, Opening to the sun above.”  While I do believe that prayer can and does make a tangible difference in this life and this world, I don’t see that as the reason why we pray.

Even though it’s become kind of a dirty word (even in church), I have to admit that I like the term religion.  It comes from a Latin word that means “to reconnect”.  Thanks to online tools like Facebook, people all over the world today are enjoying that feeling of reconnecting with old friends from days gone by.  It’s the same way with religious practices.  Through them, we find ways to reconnect with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the universe as a whole.

Now, I should qualify that statement by saying that I don’t believe we are ever completely disconnected from God in an absolute sense.  The scriptures tell us that it is in God that we “live, move, and have our being,” that God is “above all, through all, and in all,” and that “from God, through God, and to God are all things.”  When we reconnect with God, we are reconnecting with that which is already nearer to every atom than its own nucleus and closer to every person than her own soul.  It would be more proper to say that through prayer and other religious practices, we are nurturing our conscious connection with God.  Prayer brings us to an awareness of the Reality in which we already live, move, and have our being.

There are many ways that we seek to nurture this conscious reconnection in our public worship.  First of all, there are those parts of our service that are explicitly referred to as prayer.  In our Call to Worship, we acknowledge God’s presence and invite God to work in us whatever needs to happen in order for us to become the kind of loving and compassionate people that God wants us to be.  In our prayer of Confession, we acknowledge our shortcomings and celebrate God’s undying and redeeming love.  Confession is not about guilt and fear.  Confession is about honesty and trust that God never gives ever up on us.  In the prayer for Illumination, as we talked about last week, we ask the Spirit of God to enlighten our hearts and minds so that we can hear, believe, and follow God’s Word.  In the prayers of the People, we lift up to God our specific needs and concerns, trusting that God is working in us and in the world to bring peace and wholeness to all.  In the prayer of Thanksgiving, we raise a voice of gratitude for all the goodness we see in the world around us and we dedicate our lives to cooperating with God’s work in the world.  Finally, we gather all our various prayers into one great prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: the Lord’s Prayer.  There is so much to be said here, but time grows short and the hour grows late.  I will leave most of that for another sermon on another day.  For now, I’ll simply say that this one prayer encompasses all the other forms of prayer that I have already mentioned.  We say it by rote week after week, but I encourage you, as an extended meditation exercise, to stop sometime and really think about what you are saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven: hallowed be thy name…”

Not all prayer involves words or speech.  Music itself is a form of prayer, even when it is purely instrumental.  The preludes, hymns, anthems, offertories, and postludes of our worship service are not provided for your entertainment.  They are prayers in themselves.  The beautiful arrangement of sound into organized tones called music is meant to guide you and me into and through the present moment to the eternal mystery in which it rests.  Can you resonate with the music of the spheres?  Can you imagine, during an organ solo, the life-giving harmonies of our delicately balanced solar system?  Music, as a form of prayer, leads us beyond ourselves to participate in a larger reality.  A theologian once said, “The one who sings prays twice.”

Prayer can also be undertaken in total silence.  No words are necessary.  Sitting quietly for an extended period of time and focusing on the unconscious rhythm of each God-given breath is a form of prayer.  This kind of prayer, called contemplative prayer, lets go of all doing in favor of just being with God in the present moment.

“Prayer is a conscious opening of the self to God.”  In its various forms, we reconnect with that which is deepest in us and the universe.  We move beyond just “knowing about God” through dogma and theology.  We come to “know God” in a direct and mystical sense.  Through the regular practice of prayer, our lives begin to look more like Jesus’ life: living in that moment-to-moment spiritual awareness of the Love in which we live, move, and have our being.

Elements of Worship: The Word

Starting a new sermon series at First Pres, Boonville.  This is part 1 of 5.

The text is II Timothy 3:10-17.

Click here to listen to the recording of this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Does anybody here remember the Periodic Table?  I’m taking you back to 6th grade science class on this one.  It’s an oddly shaped chart of letters and numbers that’s somehow supposed to explain everything that exists.  Personally, I always thought it looked like somebody started writing the alphabet and then got really confused.  I’m told that students used to have to memorize the whole thing, but they did away with that by the time I got to Middle School (mostly because scientists were coming up with all kinds of new additions like Einsteinium and Nobelium, so the Table was getting bigger every year).  These days, I think we’re up 118 entries.  The Periodic Table is divided into metals on the left and non-metals on the right.  At the far right, there are the Noble Gases like Helium and Radon.  On the far left are the Alkaline metals like Lithium.  Each individual unit on the Periodic Table is called an element.  Elements are the basic units of chemistry.  An element represents the most basic level to which a compound or molecule can be broken down using chemical processes.  To go any father (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons), you’ve got to use nuclear means.  So, they are called elements because they are the basic components of the science of chemistry.  In the olden days, that same term was applied to the basic forces of nature: earth, air, water, and fire.  These were called the four elements.  These days, when kids get old enough to go to school, they begin at a basic and introductory level in an elementary school.  An element is a basic component of some larger system or process.

Starting today and continuing for the next four Sundays, we’re going to be talking about elements in church.  Now, we won’t be talking about chemical elements on the Periodic Table.  No, for these five Sundays, we’ll be talking about the Elements of Worship.  We’ll be looking at a kind of Periodic Table for the Church, if you will.  Each week, we’re going to look at a different element and see how each element fits into the big picture of what we do each week in church.  There are five Elements of Worship that we’ll be looking at.  The five elements are as follows: Word, Prayer, Service, Sacrament, and Relationship.  Everything we do in church, from the Announcements to the Benediction, is made up of these five elements in some combination and configuration: Word, Prayer, Service, Sacrament, and Relationship.  Even though we’re only focusing on one element per week, it will quickly become clear that none of these exists in isolation from the others.  They are all connected and intertwined with each other like a great big spider web.  We can’t really think about one without touching on the others.  Nevertheless, you’ve got to start somewhere.  So let’s get going…

This week, we’re focusing on the element of the Word.  By that, we specifically mean the Word of God.  Now, I know what you’re all thinking right now: “I know what that is.  He means the Bible.  The Word of God is the Bible.”  My answer to that is: “Well, yes and no.”  You see, the Bible never actually refers to itself as “the Word of God”.  In the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), “the Word of God” typically refers to a particular message that came to particular prophet at a particular place and time.  Thus, it says in Genesis 15, “The word of the Lord came to Abram”.  Later on, in the New Testament, “the Word” mostly refers to Christ himself.  Jesus Christ is the living Word of God.  Thus, the Word of God is a person, not a book.

What then can we say about the Bible?  First of all, the Bible is more of a library than a book.  It is a massive collection of stories, poems, and letters composed and compiled over a period of many centuries.  Thus, I like to refer to them as “the scriptures” (plural) rather than “the Bible” (singular).  These writings chronicle the ongoing relationship between God and God’s people.  Opening the scriptures is kind of like finding your grandparents’ old love letters in a trunk in the attic.  When you read them, you get these insightful little snapshots into a romance that has spanned the ages.  We treasure these fragments but we would never mistake them for the relationship itself.  That is something that can only be experienced firsthand.  Thus, the scriptures point beyond themselves to the deeper reality of a relationship into which you and I are invited.  Marcus Borg calls the scriptures “a finger pointing to the moon.”  If you’re looking at the finger, you’re looking at the wrong thing.  Look instead to where the finger is pointing.  Then and only then will you “get the point”.  Jesus himself said as much in John 5 as he was debating with the Pharisees, a group of religious people who had worked very hard to preserve the scriptures in their own tradition.  Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”  The scriptures point beyond themselves.  They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

In this day and age when the culture prizes knowledge that can be objectively verified and scientifically proved, people of faith often experience the temptation to find absolute certainty on historic and scientific facts documented in the scriptures.  They believe that the authors of the scriptures were inspired by God in the same way that a secretary takes down a dictation.  For them, the Bible (singular) is literally “the Word of God”.  They see the Bible as a single book with a single author who can never be wrong.

Reading the scriptures in this way can provide a comforting level of certainty in these uncertain times, but it can also cause all sorts of problems.  First of all, the words of the scriptures can be and have been used to justify all manner of brutality and injustice.  Advocates for slavery, exploitation, genocide, racism, sexism, and homophobia have all used the texts of the scriptures to support their causes.  A further (and bigger) problem that arises when we read the Bible as the literal Word of God is that our confidence in the book actually undermines our faith in God.  We mistake that box of Grandma and Grandpa’s love letters for the relationship itself.  We worship the Bible instead of God.  It seems to me that the second of the Ten Commandments has something to say about that: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  The way I like to read that sentence is: “You can’t put God in a box.”  I think the same holds true whether that box is a statue, a building, or a book.  Make no mistake: worshiping the Bible in God’s place is idolatry.

Presbyterians, on the whole, do not tend to view the scriptures as a single, inerrant document.  We see them collectively as the “unique and authoritative witness” to Jesus Christ as the living Word of God.  For us, the scriptures are that “finger pointing to the moon” and we want to look (and go to) where that finger is pointing us.  We want to get closer to Jesus.  We want to grow in our relationship with God.  For us, the stories, poems, and letters contained in the scriptures are a record of our ancestors’ relationship with God, centering around this amazing person named Jesus.  They remembered, reflected on, and wrestled with everything his life meant to them.  Finally, they wrote it all down in the best way they knew how, using the words and ideas they had available to them at that time.

And so we listen: we listen to these words of our fellow human beings with the ears on our heads, but we also listen for the Word of God with the ears of our hearts.  We believe the Word of God still speaks to us through these human words, limited and imperfect though they may be.  To do this, we need help.  In order to take us from these human words to God’s Word, we need something Presbyterians call “the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit”.  That’s why we stop to say a short prayer right before we read from the scriptures each week during worship.  Go ahead and check it out in your bulletin.  Right before the scripture reading, there is something called the Prayer for Illumination.  We’re asking God to turn the lights on inside of us so that we can see things more clearly.  We’re asking the Holy Spirit to help us find God’s Word in these human words.  This event is central to our worship as Christians.  When we come together, we prepare ourselves to receive God’s Word by gathering together, praising God, confessing our shortcomings, and making peace with our neighbors.  We listen for God’s Word in the reading of the scriptures and reflection on the sermon.  We respond to God’s Word by affirming our faith, praying for our needs, giving thanks for God’s blessings, and offering our whole lives to God’s service in the world.  Finally, we follow God’s Word back out into the world, trusting that the One who meets us in this place will continue to guide us out there during the other six days of the week.  It’s all about God’s Word, not a book but a person, Jesus Christ: God’s living Word.  As the lights come on inside of us and we begin to hear God’s Word through the human words of the scriptures, our lives will begin to look more like Jesus’ life: the life of a radical healer, teacher, revolutionary, and friend.

I can’t help but mention the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose 83rd birthday just so happens to be today.  Dr. King knew what we’re talking about today.  During his lifetime, people from all over the United States, even pastors, used the words of our scriptures to put him down and keep African American people under the thumb of segregation.  But Dr. King didn’t listen to those words.  He opened the scriptures and heard the Word of God saying to him (in the words of the prophet Amos), “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  The Word of God showed Dr. King how to dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  In spite of being ridiculed, beaten and arrested, Dr. King heard God’s Word in the book of Isaiah, dreaming of that day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”  On that day, he said, all God’s children: black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, will join hands and sing together, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  Through the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, these ancient scriptures became for Dr. King vessels for the Word of God.  That same Spirit lives in you, illumines you.  May the Word of God be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path.  May you be able to say, along with Martin Luther King:

I’ve heard the lightning flashing, and heard the thunder roll.
I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing, try’n to conquer my soul.
But I’ve heard the voice of Jesus telling me still to fight on.

He promised never to leave me, no, never alone.