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Sermon: Fail Fast, Fail Often

November 13, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30

Apparently, failure is a good thing.  We work very hard at avoiding mistakes—in life, in the church, in politics.  We do our best to minimize risk.  Yet if we take that attitude too far, we end up not ever doing anything because what’s the best way to avoid failure?  Don’t try anything.  If you never try anything, you can never fail.

The entrepreneurs among us, however, are wired differently.  They believe it isn’t “win or lose,” but “win or learn” (Brad Keywell, “Embracing Risk and Failure”).  Our mistakes and failures are the seeds of our success.  We learn by probing the root causes of our mistakes, and then putting those lessons into practice as we move forward.  Entrepreneurs know there will be many failures, and they embrace that.  They have learned that the best way to success is to fail often, fail quickly, and then—just as quickly—to move ahead.

The rest of us, however, avoid failure like the plague.  When we fail, we fall into the pattern that poker players call “going on tilt.”  “That’s when, following an error, a player starts making reckless moves in a last-ditch effort to chase his money —to erase the mistake altogether.”  The hope is to fix the mistake by throwing even more money down the hole (“‘Adapt’: Failure as an Option,” NPR).  By contrast, entrepreneurs, by contrast, cut their losses quickly and move on—after learning why they failed.

God is an entrepreneur.  God’s greatest startup—creating the heavens and the earth—has been a great success, but has also included some spectacular failures, beginning shortly after the seventh day of the work.  God has made some extremely risky moves, and many have not worked.

Jesus described the kingdom in of heaven in these terms.  It’s as if a man, he said, was going on a journey.  He gave his property to three stewards—$500 million to one, $200 million to another, and $100 million to the third.  The first invested that $500 million in the market, set up a microloan company and built a successful chain of stores that sold every kind of beverage except coffee.  He doubled the investment.  The second used the $200 million to invest in municipal bonds and created a hand-held computer that did everything except make telephone calls.  He also doubled the investment.  The third steward was extremely risk averse.  He knew that businesses fail and that banks invest in mortgage-backed securities.  So he put the $100 million beneath his mattress, which made it very difficult to sleep.  One hundred million dollars is a lot of money!

After a very long time, the owner returned and sat down with his stewards.  The first and second shared their success, and the owner said, “Well done.  You have handled these mere trifles very well.  Now I will put you in charge of really important things.”

The third man put a big bag of money on the table.  “Here’s your money—every penny of it.  You have what is yours.”

The owner said, “Why does this smell like mattress?

“You fool.  You knew that I am the Great Entrepreneur, so why did you hide the money.  You could at least have put it into a savings account and received nearly a quarter of a percent of interest.

“Besides, I didn’t ask you to make money, I asked you to do business (Robert Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 422).  You failed by not even trying.  So give that $100 million to the guy who already has a billion, and you get out.”

 *     *     *     *     *

We are so conditioned to avoid mistakes, to think of mistakes as bad, a sign that we are personally failures, that we frequently won’t admit to them—either consciously or unconsciously.  (Please don’t test this by asking my wife how frequently I admit to my own mistakes.)  In 2006, Alan Mulally became the chief of the Ford Motor Company.  He insisted that it was important for executives to “own up to their failures.  He asked managers to colour-code their progress reports—ranging from green for good to red for trouble.  At one early meeting he expressed astonishment at being confronted by a sea of green, even though the company had lost several billion dollars in the previous year” (The Economist, “Fail often, fail well).  We simply don’t like mistakes, and will do anything to avoid them—even going to the extreme of avoiding action.

But is that the best way to live as creatures of our God, the Great Risk Taker, who sent his only son to a world that had already proved it doesn’t like to listen to God?  Does God call us to live in a way that is opposite to how God deals with creative risk, or are we actually made in God’s image?

Churches, because they are institutions—and institutions made up of volunteers at that—are especially adept at avoiding risk.  This congregation has been given a large amount of financial resources over the years, and we have done an excellent job—led by your particularly risk-averse pastor—at holding on to and preserving and saving those resources.  At times, we have been afraid of mistakes, afraid of squandering the resources God has given to us so that we can do business.

Yet this congregation has taken a wonderful step forward in faith.  Led by the grace of God, you have chosen to invest a large amount of time and money in a project that can be decisive in the lives of families in this community.  We are not stuffing those talents into our church mattress, but are using them and exercising them for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and the children of San Pedro.  Well done good and faithful servants of God.  Even if the project were to end up as a miserable failure—and we have good people working very hard so that we can be successful—we are doing what the Church is supposed to do.  To fail through faithful action—to lose everything—is much better than never to make a mistake—to save everything—but never try.  That is the economy of the kingdom of heaven.

We have all been given an enormous amount of responsibility for resources God has put at our disposal.  Only a few of you may have $500 million—or even $100 million—but every one of us has been given a large and indeterminate number of seconds to live and breathe on this earth.  We have been given some measure of health, intelligence and skill.  We have friends and family members.  We have various physical and financial resources—home, retirement account, possessions.  If you doubt that you have been given an enormous treasure, think of what good the author and lecturer Hellen Keller did in her time on this earth, and she could neither see nor hear, two of the gifts we most often take for granted.

How do you imagine you could risk those God-given resources?  In what ways can you risk failure and rejection, just so that you can get up, dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes and try again?

At the end of the day, we do this—we use and risk ourselves and our resources; we fail, learn and try again—for the sake of people, God’s children.  That is our mission as the Church and as disciples of Jesus Christ, to share God’s grace with people, for the sake of love, joy, peace and well being.

Even though God seems to be the perfect entrepreneur, there is one way that God is distinctly not an entrepreneur, and that is with people.  Entrepreneurs fail and then move on, leaving the failure behind while learning the lessons.  Sometimes we fail.  God reaches out to us, gives so much to us, and yet we fail.  God will never give up on us and leave us behind.  If God did business like that, this entrepreneurial enterprise known as planet Earth would have been abandoned after Adam and Eve, or after the people failed by doubting God’s care in the wilderness, or after the messengers of God—the prophets—were ignored and rejected, or after Jesus died on the cross.

God did not reject us as simply another failed business model.  God tried again and again.  God rolled the stone away and raised Jesus to new life so that we might have new life.  God is the Great Entrepreneur, but only to an extent.  God will not abandon the people, no matter how frequently we fail.

When we know that, we can do business confidently and joyfully, knowing that God really isn’t interested in whether we make money or lose money with the divine capital, isn’t interested in whether we succeed or we fail.  God only cares that we do God’s own business with the resources we have been granted, and that we do God’s business faithfully.

Sermon: Oil in the Flask

November 8, 2011

Matthew 25:1-13

I have presided over at least 200 weddings in my career as an ordained minister. I do not believe that any one of those weddings began exactly on time. A few years ago, I went to perform a wedding ceremony at a hotel in Newport Beach. I always arrive early, but as I approached the 22 freeway, every lane was nearly at a dead stop. Traffic was moving slower than a crawl. I experienced one of those moments where my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach and stayed down there for a while.

I called Desiree on the cell phone—this was before the hands free law—and asked her to search out a better route. She told me there had been a major accident, and there was no better route. So I thought, Aha! Surface streets. It took me 20 minutes to get to the next exit, and nearly as long to get through the exit. Everybody else was abandoning the freeway just like I was.

Finally, I was off. I raced this way and that, trying to keep heading in the general direction of Newport Beach. I had a vision in my head of all the guests sitting nervously, the groom pacing at the altar, the bride panicking in her powder room, everybody waiting for me, the bumbling clergyman who couldn’t make it to a simple wedding on time.

Because I had given myself a head start, I managed to make it to the hotel just a few minutes after the scheduled time. When I rushed up to the area where the altar and chairs had been set up, there was almost nobody there. I found the wedding coordinator and she seemed happy to see me, not in a fit of rage. You see, almost everybody was coming from the northwest, and they all got caught up in the same traffic. The groom hadn’t even arrived. The only reason the bride was present was that she stayed in the hotel the previous night. I was early. We started the ceremony about 90 minutes late, but we got ‘em married and everybody had a good time. That’s an extreme example, but a wedding never starts on time.

The cliché is that it is the bride who is forever late to the wedding ceremony, but in the case of my wedding in Newport Beach, it was the groom who was delayed. That is also the situation in our scripture lesson. Matthew told us the story from the perspective of the bridesmaids. In an ancient Palestinian wedding, the bride and her entourage would have a grand procession to the site of the wedding feast, and the groom and his men would process from a different location to the site. Once everybody had arrived, there would be feasting that would last for up to a week.

In the world of the First Century, the scheduled time for an event would have been rather vague according to our standards. Nobody had watches; nobody had cars. People would get to any event by walking, nobody expecting that all the guests would arrive at about the same hour. In the case of a wedding, the invitation might say that the wedding would be Saturday, and the expectation would be that people would arrive anytime between sunup and sundown.

Even then, there could be delays. In our wedding from Matthew’s gospel, the groom was much delayed. Maybe the lambs were giving birth. Maybe a neighbor needed help getting his oxcart out of a ditch. Maybe the three-mile walk simply took longer than expected. Whatever the reason, the feast could not begin until both bride and groom had arrived.

The ten bridesmaids went out to meet the groom on the way. It was getting dark, and they took their lamps. The wise bridesmaids took oil in their lamps. It was the reasonable thing to do, to be prepared. It’s what we do. If we’re going to a special event, we make sure to have plenty of film and fresh batteries for our cameras. The other five, however, were not so wise. They didn’t think to take oil for their lamps.

The ten reached the place where they would wait for the groom, and they waited, and they waited. It was dark, they were tired, and so they fell asleep. They were snoring away when at about midnight, there was a shout: “Look! Here’s the bridegroom!”

The young women all got their lamps ready, and the foolish ones then realized they had forgotten the most important ingredient for their lamps. “Ah, Susie, funny thing…would you be so kind as to let me have some of your oil?”

And Susie said, “You know what? No. There won’t be enough for both of us. Go to the lamp shop and buy some.” The lamp shop. At midnight. But the five foolish bridesmaids had no other choice, and so they ran off into the night to find oil for their lamps.

Meanwhile, the groom, the wise bridesmaids and the rest marched off to the wedding feast. They arrived, full of excitement and ready for the feast. They shut the door and locked it behind them.
When the foolish bridesmaids returned to the place of the feast, they pounded on the door. “We’re back…we’re back. Lord, lord, open to us.”

“Truly I tell you. I do not know you.”

* * * * *

The wise and the foolish were not so different. They were all friends of the bride and groom. They all went out into the dark of the night to meet the groom. They all fell asleep when the groom was delayed. The difference between the wise and foolish was that the wise had oil. The oil was all the difference.

What do you suppose Matthew means to tell us about the oil? What do you think it represents?
Even in the First Century, just a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, people thought that Jesus’ second coming in glory was taking a little too long. The groom was delayed. So the question was, “What do we do now?” Some people just gave up waiting. “He’s never coming back. The promise was false.” This story is Matthew’s answer to “what do we do now?”

It seems evident that the oil represents what it is that we do while we wait for the arrival of the bridegroom. We do not sit on our hands or just gaze out the window. Our faith leads us to some action in this between time. Jesus’ delay gives us time to act, time to live, time to love. The oil represents the character of our waiting for the return of the Christ.

Scholars have looked through Matthew’s gospel to find clues about what precisely the oil represents. Is it evangelism, preaching the good news? Is it martyrdom, laying down our lives for the sake of our faith? It is clear that Matthew thinks we should be doing something, but what?
In a couple of weeks, we will read Matthew’s vision of the final judgment. In that story, much like our story today, there are two groups. One group is admitted to the kingdom of heaven, and the other group is not allowed to enter. The only difference between the two groups is that one performed good works and acts of mercy, particularly toward those who are the lost and the least, the most vulnerable—those who are hungry, those who are strangers, those who are naked, those who are sick and in prison. Could that be the oil in the flask?

Could it be that as we are merciful and loving to our neighbors, as we do justice to those who are most vulnerable, we are keeping the fires of our lamps burning until the Messiah comes again? To the degree that we share a helping hand, that we give away our time, talents and gifts to the world, we are filling up our own lamps with pure oil.

Could this mean that when you pick up bread for Sunday Nite Supper, you are not only burning gasoline in your automobile, but putting precious oil into your lamp of life? Could it be that when you take your neighbor to her doctor’s appointment, you are pouring oil into your lamp? When you send money to help the families of wounded veterans, you are storing up oil. When you volunteer in the school library, that’s oil.

We do this because we are friends of the bridegroom. We want to accompany him to the feast he has graciously prepared for us. But the feast is not yet. We still wait. The bridegroom is delayed another week. In the meantime, we have a representation of that feast today, prepared by loving hands. It is a preview of that heavenly banquet, and you are all invited to bring your oil and share in the feast of the bridegroom.

Sermon: Abundant Fruit

July 10, 2011

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Desiree and I tried the square-foot method of gardening this year.  It is ideal for people who have only a little space and limited time to devote to vegetable gardening.  Each plot is just one foot square.  You can prepare as few or as many plots as you wish.  If you only want a few carrots and nothing else, or if you only want to have to do a limited amount of weeding each week, then you only need to prepare a single plot one foot square.  If you’re more ambitious, you can work dozens of plots.

The key to the square foot method is precision.  Each type of plant requires a specific amount of room in the garden.  If you’re growing radishes, you can put 24 radishes in a single square foot plot.  If you want bell peppers, you can put only a single plant in that same square foot.  Some larger plants require more than one plot.  The basic square foot gardening book has all sorts of charts and tables that give you this information, plus seed germination times, times to harvest and other data.

There’s one other unique feature of square foot gardening.  Most experts recommend planting a number of seeds.  If you want a squash plant, build a mound and plant three seeds.  After they develop true leaves, thin out the two weakest plants and leave the strongest.  If you’re planting a row of carrots, sprinkle them all the way down the row and then thin them out so they are an inch or two apart.  But the square foot gardening method says, if you want one plant, plant one seed.  Protect that one seedling until the harvest.  There are no wasted seeds.  One seed, one plant.  The hallmarks of the square foot method are precision and frugality.

Let’s compare that with God’s gardening method.  Throw a bunch of seeds over here.  Throw a bunch of seeds over there.  Toss some on the path.  Toss some over in the rocks.  Throw a few on good soil for good measure.  Then, let’s just see what happens.

There’s no care or precision in that.  It’s wasteful.  Hey, I have an idea, God.  Why don’t you throw all of the seeds on good soil?  That way, none are eaten by birds.  All of them will have a chance to develop good roots.  None of them will get choked out by weeds.  Did you ever consider that method?!

God has some strange ways, tossing out grace left and right.  Throwing love around here and there, willy nilly, into areas where grace and love have no business being found, into places where there is almost no chance that grace can take root or love flourish.  It is maddening the way God sends precious seed here and there knowing full well that most of it will go to waste.  If the Lord were in charge of the planting on my farm, I’d have to fire God after the first season.

But this is the way God does things around here.  Jesus’ parable is descriptive.  It simply describes the way things are.  It doesn’t tell us how to fix anything or change the system.  Jesus simply says, “Here’s what happens in heaven’s kingdom.  Some people get it, but most people don’t.”  The way Jesus describes it almost makes it seem predetermined and that we’re powerless to change things.  If I’m off over in the rocks and weeds, what chance do I have?  But if I am out there on the margins, on the path where the birds are likely to snatch grace away from me, or in the rocks where I have little chance to take root, perhaps it is good news that the grace of God comes my way anyway.  God does not write me off as a loss.

Nick lived with his mother and his stepfather.  Nick’s biological father was no longer in his life.  Nick’s father had left long before, but he did leave Nick with one legacy, one skill to get by.  He had taught Nick how to sell drugs.  Nick’s mother had almost no money for clothes or food, so that skill set, the ability to sell drugs, came in handy for Nick.

Of course, that didn’t mean that life was good for Nick.  His stepfather beat him, and his mother never intervened.  Finally, one winter night when Nick was 17, his mother told Nick that either Nick had to go, or his stepfather had to go.  She made it clear that Nick was the one who would be leaving.  She sent him out the door with a garbage bag full of clothes.

For the next decade and a half, Nick made his way in the world selling drugs.  He covered over the despair in his life with a thick veneer of drug abuse and partying.  He watched his friends die and go to prison.  Finally, Nick went to prison, too.

From the moment he was born, Nick found himself right in the middle of the path.  The ground beneath him was hard and dry and compacted.  Any seed of grace was snatched right up by the birds the moment it hit the ground or it was immediately trampled underfoot.  Nick was born into this world without a chance.  Anyone could have predicted that he would have ended up in prison.  That was no surprise.  The only surprise was that Nick hadn’t been killed before he found himself behind bars.

While in prison, perhaps the worst part of the path, a place where grace and love seem almost entirely absent, Nick met some people from Alpha Prison Ministries.  Somehow, Nick met God’s grace, and oddly enough, while Nick sits there in a prison cell, he can say that his life is on track.  Against all odds, he has begun to grow a root.  He has begun to send forth shoots to the sun.

Nick saw the world in a new way.  He got his GED, scoring highest in his class.  As he says, “I started spreading my light to the darkness here….I started pouring my heart out to people…I’m a new man!  The little things that I used to take for granted are things that I now treasure.”  (Alpha Prison Ministries: “Son of a Drug Dealer.”)

I wonder how many seeds God wasted in Nick’s part of the path before one finally began to grow.  How many times did God send love and grace that was rejected or missed?  Do you think that to God it was worth it to “waste” all that valuable seed—seed that could have been bearing fruit in better soil—against the long odds that one of them might bear fruit in Nick’s soul?

Nick had every disadvantage in his life, and when the seed of grace finally took root in him, he was far behind others who had more advantages.  But the parable does not pass judgment on Nick or anyone else.  There are, however, those seeds that fell on good soil.  They bear fruit quickly and abundantly—a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold.  Those higher yields—a hundredfold and sixtyfold—are spectacular, fantastic, miraculous yields.  Bearing fruit a hundred times over is truly miraculous.  It is evidence that we have moved into the territory of the kingdom of heaven.  It is the result of grace and not our own innate abilities.

So if this parable is simply descriptive, what is its purpose?  If it just tells us what the kingdom looks like, that some people get it in a big way and other people may never have much of a prayer, how is that helpful to us as we try to be fruitful people?

Perhaps it means to tell us that our problem is that we try too hard to be fruitful in the first place.  We expend so much mental energy wrestling with questions about whether we have done enough—or are good enough—to be worthy of the kingdom.  What if the parable is telling us that God will keep working at that for us, that we don’t have much control over where we are in this life—on the path, in the rocks or the weeds, or on the good soil—and so we need to relax and grow as best we can where we are, how we are and who we are.  The growth and the abundant fruitfulness come from God’s grace, not our own efforts.

This could be a parable about trust.  Trust God, the profligate farmer, who wastes the resources of love and grace that have no business being tossed out to the margins.  Trust that God will keep sowing seed in your direction, giving you another opportunity to be fruitful if you will trust that seed, and the sun and wind and soil—whatever soil is around you—to do its work.

Trust God to keep putting the seed out there in every proper season.  Trust in God’s love and grace, and stop worrying about whether you are good enough and worthy enough for that grace.  Stop worrying about whether or not you have borne enough fruit.  Simply enjoy the fruit that you bear and be sure to share it with others.

“As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sermon: Wisdom’s Children

July 3, 2011

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Even though the Church of Jesus Christ is open to all people, we sometimes make it difficult for people to become members.  Many local congregations have developed elaborate membership classes that require only a little less time and effort than getting a Ph.D.  Some churches require specific commitments, such as becoming a member of a small group, serving on a committee or tithing—giving ten-percent of your income to the church.  Some denominations insist that new members sign a document that claims the person’s theological beliefs are identical to the doctrines of the church in question.  Some require a particular kind of baptism—if you haven’t been immersed completely, then you haven’t really been baptized.  I know people who have gotten married with far less commitment than is required by some churches.  In fact, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church says that our membership “vows, like marriage vows, bind us as long as we live on earth…God will punish those who do not keep their solemn promises made in his name. Remember, ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31).”

Now let’s contrast those burdens of membership with the way Jesus gathered followers.  Jesus approached some potential new members—he called them “disciples”—and said, “Hey, come on!”  If a person wanted to become a member of Jesus’ movement, they followed him.  If not, they didn’t.  All the training they got was on-the-job training.

It could be said that Jesus’ disciples did not have it quite as easy as it seems on the surface.  Legend has it that of Jesus’ original membership class of 12, all 12 died early, violent deaths.  But, it is also true that none of them ever had to serve on the Board of Trustees.  Some people would say that’s a good tradeoff.

As religions and denominations make the shift from movement to institution, the level of commitment and obligation required by the leaders seems to increase.  But that’s not ever how Jesus imagined the life of faith.  Our lesson from the gospel according to Matthew includes one of our most beloved verses: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s something we can all appreciate in our busy, overburdened lives.  In the modern world, employee productivity is skyrocketing through the roof.  What that really means is that businesses are getting more work from fewer and fewer employees.  Employees are burdened.  Our children are expected to attend ever more activities and functions, and many parents today look forward to Mondays because their overburdened jobs seem like vacations compared to a weekend full of dashing around town to get their children to thirty events.  We fight with insurance companies, banks and credit card companies, the IRS and a hundred other institutions that aren’t particularly interested in knowing that you worked a 60 hour week.  Oh, and by the way, there’s a meeting at church tonight.  We need a yoke that’s easy and a burden that is light.

Jesus never had to deal with the rigors of a high school marching band schedule or inane paperwork.  He did, however, know something of religious obligation.  Jesus grew up in a religion and a society that was under threat.  The Romans had occupied the land, and while they were relatively generous occupiers, they still managed to stifle the social and religious life of the people.  Some religious people thought that the answer to this problem was more faithfulness.  If only we worked harder and became more faithful Jews, God would intervene and drive the Romans from this land.  The Pharisees were one of these groups of leaders.  They were lay people, and they believed that religious Law and obligation could be observed to the nth degree.  They were able to parse out the obligations of God’s Law in every particular.

It’s easy for us to caricature the Pharisees as uptight people who were more concerned with questions about how you could stuff a camel through the eye of a needle than about how to love God and neighbor, but look at these two books.  One of them is the Bible, and one of them is The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  Which one do you suppose is the Bible?…If you said the thicker book is the Bible, you are correct, but it isn’t thicker by very much.  This Discipline is 857 pages, including the index.  Eight hundred and fifty-seven pages of policies and procedures, rules and regulations.  If you dropped this thing on your foot, you’d be in a cast for a month.

The Pharisees and our Book of Discipline, however, are not evil, and they are not the enemy.  They are testaments to our human desire to serve God well and live up to our high calling as children of the Almighty.  But they are also misguided, and this is what Jesus understands.  Our relationship to God is not based on obligation, but on love.  It is God’s grace—God’s free gift of love—that gives us the breath of life.  It is God’s grace that sends Jesus, the embodiment of perfect love, to this earth.  It is God’s grace that gives us the loving, nurturing presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us.  God first loved us, and we love God back (1 John 4:19).  That’s the message of Jesus Christ.  “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

But through all of our trying so hard, and by exercising all of our best plans and carefully considered mission statements and reorganizations and commitment-filled membership vows, we have tried to measure up, and we have missed the boat.  Our faith is not about measuring up.  It is about loving.  That’s why Jesus said, “I thank you, God, that the so-called wise and intelligent people of this world have not understood your message, but you have given understanding to the infants, the simple and humble, those who know that they are utterly dependent on you.”  They don’t try too hard.  They don’t fight and struggle to gain something you have already given to them as a gift.  They simply trust in you, God, and rest secure and easy in your love.  It has never been about working hard.  It has always been about love.

Fifty-eight year old Debbie Spark heard a woman, a stranger, someone she had never met, talking about her kidney condition.  Due to a genetic condition, the woman had to undergo dialysis three times a week, and had a severely restricted diet.  Her name was Polly.

Debbie had watched her own friend die while waiting for a heart transplant in 1985.  She felt compelled to help, and so she did.  In May of this year, Debbie gave Polly one of her own kidneys.  Debbie and Polly both will have to have their blood tested regularly to be sure their single kidneys are functioning properly.  But now, Polly has the prospect of a nearly normal life.  And Debbie?  She has one kidney left.  (James Monteleone, “From Stranger to Friend to Living Organ Donor,” Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2011.)

Do you think Debbie shared a kidney with Polly because she was just that committed?  Do you think her religious obligation caused her to give a part of herself—literally—to a stranger?  Or do you think she did it out of love?

Seven Words You Can Say in Church

June 21, 2011

This is a sermon I wrote in 2008, shortly after the death of George Carlin.  I used the gospel lesson from this week’s Lectionary.

Matthew 10:40-42

Almost a week ago, comedian George Carlin died of heart failure at age 71.  Carlin was well known for his many appearances on television talk shows such as The Tonight Show, and for his absurd reflections on life, such as, “Why why do they lock the public bathrooms at gas stations?  Are they afraid that someone will clean them?”  And, “Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.”  (http://www.georgecarlin.com/home/home.html.)

Carlin, though, is most famous for a 1972 routine known as “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” in which Carlin uses seven obscenities, some of which still have shock value today.  While Carlin wondered aloud why these particular words were so offensive, law enforcement officials Milwaukee didn’t have to wonder, and Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace when he said the seven famous words at a show.  Later, the FCC attempted disciplinary action against a radio station that played an uncensored version of Carlin’s routine.

But Carlin was focused on the negative.  These are the words you can’t say on television.  But what about all of the things you can say?  It might not be funny, but our scripture lesson today shares with us the Seven Words You Can Say in Church.  Let’s take a look.

Our short reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is a conclusion to a long section in which Jesus gave instructions to the 12 disciples he sent out to the mission field.  First, Jesus told them to go ahead of him to all the villages and towns, and to do all the things he was doing.  Tell them the good news that the kingdom of heaven is coming near; cure the sick; raise the dead; cleanse lepers; cast out demons.  (Matthew 10:7-8)

Then, he gave them warnings about what to expect.  Some people may not welcome you.  Some people may be hostile.  In fact, your own family may not accept your missionary work, but don’t worry.  God, who cares for the sparrows, will care for you.  Jesus said, “If people have treated me so poorly, could you expect that they would treat my followers any better?  You’ll have to pick up the cross every day.”  (Matthew 10:16-39)

And then Jesus ended with the words from our scripture lesson for today.  He said, “Not everyone will reject you.

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.  (Matthew 10:40-42)

And there it is, the Seven Words You Can Say in Church.  Just as in real estate, the three key things are “location, location, location,” in the church, the seven key concepts are “welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome and welcome some more.  And then give.”

Six times, Jesus used the word “welcome.”  Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, because you are my messengers, you are my representatives.  And because God sent me, God is also being welcomed.  Welcome a prophet and receive the reward of a prophet.  Welcome a righteous person and receive the reward of the righteous.  Jesus clearly believes in welcoming.

In our church, pastors are itinerant.  That means that if the Bishop tells us it is time to move on to another church, we must go.  Certainly, we can argue our case for not moving, but ultimately, if the Bishop has it firmly in her mind that we are to go, we must go.  This is the third church I have served, and so three times I have moved into a new community, and I knew almost nothing about the place.  And three times, my family and I have been warmly welcomed by people who didn’t know me from Adam.  I had done nothing to deserve that welcome.  I hadn’t preached any sermons, visited anyone in the hospital, baptized a child or celebrated a marriage.  The welcoming is a gift that I hadn’t earned.

Have you ever had an experience in your life in which you felt truly the gift of a warm welcome?  Were you ever at a time in your life where you felt as if you were wandering in the wilderness, not sure where to go, not sure where to find a friendly face or support?  And as you were welcomed from an unexpected source, what did that feel like?

Jesus encourages us to share the gift of welcome.  Perhaps the best place for us to practice sharing that gift is in our worship service.  Every week, we have two official greeters to welcome people to the service–old friends and new friends alike.  But what do you think it would be like if everyone thought of themselves as a greeter every week, lingering in the Narthex to give a warm smile and firm handshake to someone new, maybe looking around to see who’s sitting around you, and if they’re new to you, introducing yourself and saying “I’m glad we could worship together today.”

Some churches have teams of people trained to seek out new people and welcome them.  Some churches even have parking lot greeters not just to help new worshippers find appropriate spaces and make their way to the sanctuary, but also welcome them just as they arrive to church for the very first time.  As Ken Callahan says, there are no visitors in church.  Nobody comes to church to visit.  People come to worship, and when they do, we are being disciples when we give them a warm welcome.

The next place to practice welcoming is in your neighborhood.  In our world, people don’t connect with their neighbors like they used to.  A few weeks ago, a neighbor a couple of houses up the street came by while I was watering the lawn.  She said, “I feel so embarrassed that I haven’t done this yet, but I just wanted to say hello and welcome you to the neighborhood.”  We have lived in the parsonage for nearly three years, and even though it took her that long for her to say welcome, most of the people on our street have never come by.

But welcoming is not just about the “old” people reaching out to the “new.”  Welcoming is really about sharing care and hospitality.  When we moved in three years ago, I had intended to visit every single neighbor on the street within the first couple of months just to say, “Hello.  I’m glad we’re in the same neighborhood.  I’m here for you.”  And how many times did I reach out in welcoming to my neighbors?  You can count ‘em on one hand.  But how simple and easy it is to practice Christian welcoming in our neighborhoods!  And yet, most of us don’t see the opportunities that are right in front of us.

But some of you do see the opportunities.  I know at least one of you volunteers at a local hospital to give welcoming care to people who are in a place they don’t want to be.  I know another one of you who is frequently giving friends and family a place to stay or a few dollars when they have fallen on rough times.  Another one of you can be found out in the Narthex each Sunday giving a special welcoming greeting to people as they leave the worship service.  I know several of you who make it a point to visit with new people at Coffee Chat.  Welcome is a gift that we can all share with others, and it is a gift we have all received.  And “welcome” is six of the first Seven Words You Can Say in Church.

The final word is give.  “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…none of these will lose their reward.”  Even a cup of cold water.  How easy is that?  God sees and honors even the smallest gestures of kindness.  No gift of welcoming care is too small.

And we believe that God should know.  God is the author of giving.  Have you ever heard that one verse?…It’s…uh…John…yes…John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”–not such a small gesture, either–“that everyone who believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

That’s an extremely large and generous gift.  But God is not asking for the world.  How about a cup of cold water?  A loaf of fresh bread to a new neighbor?  A shoulder to cry on?  Helping an elderly neighbor with a chore?  God sees.  God honors those little gifts.  They are not insignificant because the “little ones” are not insignificant.

George Carlin might be right.  There may be seven words you can’t say on TV.  But Jesus said there are seven words you can say in church and anywhere else you live out your discipleship: welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome…and give.  And he wasn’t joking.

Sermon: If You Can Read This, Then You Are Almost Close Enough

May 29, 2011

Acts 17:22-31

When I was in high school, my dad and I went hiking early one Saturday morning.  We arrived back at the van a little after lunch.  We started loading our gear when my dad said, annoyance in his voice, “Do you know where my keys are?”

At first, I was calm about this.  I looked in all the locks to see if he had left them there, or in the ignition.  I looked on the floor of the van.  I searched through our gear.  No keys.  After a few minutes of this, I was starting to get a little concerned.  We had hiked all over those hills, and there was no way we could retrace our steps in the event the keys had been lost out there in the brush.  And we were about 30 miles from home.  There were no cell phones for us then, either.  I started to get myself ready for an even longer hike.

Then, as I was just on the edge of despair, I looked at my dad to speak to him, and this is what I saw…The car keys were clenched between his teeth, just dangling there as if they had been playing a practical joke on us.  After my dad opened the van, he decided he needed both hands, so he slipped the key between his teeth and immediately forgot.  For 20 minutes, we had searched high and low, frustration building all the while, and the stupid keys had been right there all the time.  Paul said, “[God] did this so that they would look for him, and perhaps find him as they felt around for him.  Yet God is actually not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27, Today’s English Version).

*     *     *     *     *

          During the seven Sundays of Easter, the Lectionary uses the book of Acts in place of the Old Testament lesson.  Acts is the story of the early Church.  It is part two of the Gospel according to Luke.  It traces the story of scared, confused apostles as they carried the Good News from Jerusalem to the wider world.  It tells us how the Church grew in love, compassion and the number of those who were baptized.

Today, Acts gives us part of Paul’s story, our first great missionary to the wider world.  For Paul, the pinnacle of the mission field consisted of the great, ancient civilizations of Greece and the newer cities of the Roman Empire.  As Paul moved toward Rome, he was sure to visit Athens, home of the greatest philosophers of the West, home to a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses, home to great architecture and greater statesmen.

And so, when Paul first arrived, he did what anyone would do.  He went on a tour of the city.  One of the places he visited was the Areopagus, a hill that, during classical civilization, was a seat of government and law.  By the time Paul arrived, the Areopagus had apparently become a public gathering place for philosophers and other intellectuals.  Some Stoic philosophers had heard Paul’s teaching about Jesus, and they said, “This is very interesting.  Tell us more.”  And so Paul, who always looked for an opportunity to talk about what God had done through Jesus, did precisely that.

He said, “As I looked around your city, I saw how very religious you are.  I also saw an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”  Please note what Paul did not say.  He did not say, “I saw all your idols and your temples dedicated to false gods.  Boy, you people don’t know anything.”  Paul did not ridicule them or their beliefs.  He was respectful to them and found a point of contact.  He met them on their terms and did not expect them to meet him only on his terms.

Paul then said, “What you worship as unknown, I will make known to you.  You worship God who created the heavens and the earth.  God created all people and all nations.  God had hopes that we human beings would search for God, would grope for God, and just maybe we would find God.  But even so, God has never been far from us.  God is already close, as close as breath.  Even your poets have written, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

In the family of humanity, there are a lot of searchers and seekers.  Maybe you are one of them.  Some people have a restless spirit that keeps driving them to find something.  In an earlier day, they were the explorers, the pioneers, the cowboys, the astronauts, the college students backpacking across Europe.  Their true home was on the move, looking, seeking, finding.

But even those of us who live more stable lives, who live in the same house their entire lives, even we frequently search.  We look for love, belonging, meaning to our lives.  We spend a surprising amount of time in this life searching for our keys.  Frequently, we look for, we grope for, the divine, the presence of God.

But like searching for those keys after the hike, there are lots of possible places to do our searching.  We could have backtracked and hiked back over miles of country to find the elusive keys.  We could have—and did—turned that van inside out to find the keys.  We could have groveled around in the dust looking for a dropped set of keys.  But in the end, we discovered that they were so close, almost too close.  Like the prodigal son, we sometimes travel to a faraway country looking for that missing piece of ourselves, that piece that makes us whole and happy and satisfied.  The piece that makes us feel loved and accepted.  The piece that gives us the courage to reach out to the world with confidence and compassion.  And when we come to ourselves in that faraway country, we understand that God had been that close all along.  “In him we live and move and have our being.”

And so Paul says, “We have been ignorant.  We have imagined that our salvation could be found in things of gold and silver and stone and gadgets and clothes and careers.  We have been ignorant, but no more.  Now we repent.  We change our minds and our lives, and we open up our arms to the God who is already right there.  God will make us truly right and will judge us righteous through his love.  The assurance of that comes in the fact that God raised from the dead the very one chosen to judge us all, Jesus Christ.  That proves God’s love for us.”

That was Paul’s message to those Athenians who were so smart.  They knew all the philosophies, all the arguments, all the best knowledge of their era.  They had this world figured out, but they could not find God because they forgot to look right beside themselves, right in front of themselves.  They forgot to check their breath, their blood, their being—between their teeth.  God was right there all along.

I wonder, where do you think you will find God this week?

Sermon: By Name

May 15, 2011

John 10:1-10

Sometimes we think children don’t really pay attention to the things adults do.  Here’s a story that says different.

    When I was a kid, I went to church with my mother, and the minister would speak to my mother, “How’re you, Miz Craddock?” and the five of us kids would go along like little ducks along after our mother.  “How’re you, sonny?  How’re you, honey?  How’re you, sonny?  How’re you, honey?”

    But I remember when another minister came to our church, and about his fifth or sixth Sunday when I went along there, he said, “Fred, how’re you doing?”  He was the best minister that ever was at that church, because there’s a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”  (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, eds.  [St. Louis: Chalice, 2001], 147.)

There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

Everybody needs to be known by name.  It isn’t enough that somebody knows your face or kinda knows that you’re related to whats-his-name.  You need to be known by name.

Cultures all around this planet have known there is power in a name.  In some cultures, people have secret names that will only be revealed to the deepest intimates.  There are fables about the power of names.  Think of Rumpelstiltskin.  It used to be said that one could gain power over a magician if you knew the magician’s true name.  But the greatest power in a name is when someone you love deeply, someone you love, calls you by your name.  “Eric.”

The ancients believed that the gods only really cared about human beings who had famous names, great names—Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus.  Those few human beings were favored by the gods, sometimes almost at whim, and the rest of us were merely nameless rabble who could only secure that uncertain favor by giving sacrifice and offering to those fickle gods, and hoping for the best.

But the gospel according to John tells of a different sort of savior.  John wrote, “The gatekeeper opens up the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

The shepherd is an image used frequently in the Old Testament to refer to the leadership of the people of Israel and sometimes to the lordship of God, their true king.  John is probably using the image of sheep and sheepfold, shepherd and gate, in order to comment upon the type of leadership that is appropriate for the Christian community, but he does so by lifting up the image of our true shepherd Jesus.  Jesus provides the touchstone for leadership and faith.  Jesus’ own actions with the disciple and the people who gathered around him are to be models for Christian leaders and Christian disciples.  We hear—and recognize—his voice.  When you’re around Jesus enough, you learn to recognize the tone, content and style of his speech.  Even though there may be a thousand competing voices, if you have made it a habit to listen to the shepherd’s voice, you will know which one is his voice.

One of the hallmarks of that voice is that the shepherd knows you by name.  If you hear a voice that calls you “sonny,” it ain’t the shepherd’s voice.  If you hear the voice that calls you by name—Joe, Phyllis, Ray, Sharon, Ken, Catarina—then you know the shepherd is near.

It’s tough to be a sheep in this world.  There are wolves all around out there, and they have their own names.  Cancer, Loneliness, Unemployment, Fear.  It can be terrifying to be standing out there in that great big pasture feeling vulnerable and weak.  But the shepherd is near, and the shepherd knows your name.  If you hear your name spoken by the voice of the shepherd, then you know you are not alone, no matter what predators are prowling around.  And you are known by name.

As I said, John was using these images of sheep and shepherd to say something about how we live in community together.  Leaders and other disciples know the names of the other sheep.  They speak together with the authentic voice of the shepherd.  They protect and care for one another.  Yes, they are first images that teach us about the shepherding care of Jesus Christ, but second, they teach us how we live together.

There is a story about a very large congregation; you might even call it a mega church.  One of the knocks against mega churches is that you may not be known by name.  There are just too many sheep.  Some people feel lost among the crowd.  But to the people of this very large congregation—they worship in the thousands each Sunday—the church felt like a small church all because of one shepherd named Al.  Al made it a point each and every Sunday to greet each person who came to worship and to use their name.  “It’s good to see you, Mary.  Good morning, Ed.  Hi there, Stephanie.”  If you were worshiping for the first time at that church, Al would be sure he learned your name so that the second time you came to worship, he could call you by name.  That church had nearly two thousand people in worship each Sunday, but it felt like a small church to the people who called that place home because Al knows their names.

Church mission growth expert Ken Callahan says that it is so vitally important that a new person’s first impression with a church is a good one.  He says that no matter where that first impression takes place, whether the parking lot or the bottom of the stairs or at the door to the Sanctuary, it is critical that two things happen.  First, we learn that new person’s name, and second, that we teach them our name.  Names are powerful.  There is no substitute for hearing your name on the lips of someone who loves you.  There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

God’s love for us is personal and intimate.  Jesus’ love for us is personal and intimate.  There are no nameless sheep among us.  And that is how Christ calls us to live together.  You remember Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples on the night he washed their feet?  He said to them, “Love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It is hard to love someone if you do not know their name.  And I know in our culture, we’re reluctant to share too much about ourselves.  We are a private culture.  We are afraid of being taken advantage of by strangers.  We’re afraid of identity theft.  We’re afraid all the other sheep around us because a few of them are definitely wolves beneath the wool.  It’s hard to open up to one another because we just might get hurt.  No, let me rephrase that.  We will get hurt.  Only the people who know our names can truly hurt us, truly betray us.  That is, with one exception.  Jesus Christ, the shepherd who knows our names and calls us to pasture and back to safety once more, will never betray us, never leave us.  Even if we were all to run away from him so that he had to face the wolves alone and on his own, he would still love us.  He would still gently gather us back together into the flock.  That’s love.  That is the sort of love to which we are called to share with one another.  And it starts by calling one another by name.  There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”