Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, August 25, 2013 Jeremiah 1:4-10 “Who, Me?”

There’s a word that we don’t hear much anymore. It’s defined as a lament, often filled with harsh invective, against the state of society. It’s a moralistic text that denounces a society for its wickedness, and prophesies its downfall. Although we don’t hear the word jeremiad very often, we do hear those kinds of speeches on a fairly regular basis, whether it is someone saying that the nation is falling apart because of the political leadership, or that the younger generation is lazy and immoral, or that religious institutions are hypocritical because they have not done enough for or against [you fill in the blank].  If such a speech is full of melodramatic, doom and gloom language, it’s a jeremiad.

The word comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who was noted for bring God’s word to the people who had forgotten what a good relationship with the Lord was supposed to look like. His laments are both poetic and horrific, because he wants the people to understand how unhappy God is with them. Suffice to say that the Book of Jeremiah is a hard and sometimes frightening read.

It is in stark contrast to the story of Jeremiah’s beginnings as a prophet, the story we heard in our Old Testament reading today. Jeremiah is, by his own description, just a boy. God tells him that there is work to do. God has known that Jeremiah will be a prophet since before his birth. He has known him in his mother’s womb, as he was formed into the person he would become.

Imagine being a ten or twelve year old boy and hearing God’s voice, saying “I’ve been planning for you to be a prophet for me since before you were born.” A little intimidating, right? Predictably, Jeremiah says, “Who, me? I don’t think I can do that. I haven’t got the skills.” And God says, “Don’t say that. I’ll give you the words.” And God touched his mouth, and the words were there, and would continue to be there, through the difficult times when Jeremiah had to deliver a tough message that the people needed to hear.

Jeremiah was tapped on the shoulder by God at the age that we confirm most of our young people. We haven’t seen any signs that any of them are prophets in the vein of Jeremiah quite yet, but you never know. Jeremiah didn’t really start stirring things up until he was grown, after all.

But it certainly raises the question “If God has known me since I was still in my mother’s womb, what did he see me becoming?” A prophet? A teacher? A caregiver? A healer? A fighter for justice? A calming influence in troubled situations?

Who did God envision me to be?

Sometimes we only discover it over time.

Isabella Baumfree was born in the late 1700s in upstate New York, a Dutch-speaking slave. She was sold, along with a flock of sheep, in the slave market at the age of nine. Her new master was a cruel one, beating her daily. She was resold several times. Although the state of New York abolished slavery in the early 1820s, she was not set free by her master. She escaped with her infant daughter in 1826 and stayed with a kind white family until the new emancipation law took effect. During this time she became a devout Christian. She learned that her son Peter had been sold illegally to an owner in Alabama, and she successfully sued for her son’s freedom. This was the first time that a black woman won a case in court against a white man.

In the 1840s, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, abandoning a name that reminded her of her enslavement and taking on a new one, saying “The Spirit calls me and I must go.” She was a Methodist missionary and an abolitionist. As time progressed, she also focused on women’s rights, and spoke powerfully of the fact that women had worked just as men had, and that women held a particular place of power and influence because they bore children, in the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.

In later years she became an Adventist and continued to fight through her powerful voice for equal rights for people of color and for women. And she, like Jeremiah, may have often felt like she didn’t have the words. One time, she came to a speaking engagement exhausted by her travels, and she is said to have announced “Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say.” She knew that more often than not, it was God’s words coming through her, not words of her own invention. That’s the thing about prophets. Their job is to speak God’s message, to call the people to attention, to fix broken relationships.

As she stood on the slave block at the age of nine, speaking only Dutch, did she have an inkling of God’s plan for her? I doubt it. She would have been frightened, leaving her parents and the only home she had known, not knowing who would buy her or what he would expect of her. She would have wondered if he paid the $100 for the sheep and she was just a little extra something thrown into the bargain. What would have happened if  she had heard God’s voice saying, “You will be a prophet?” Her reply most likely would be a variant of Jeremiah’s : “who, me?” And yet she became a prophet, and how she prophesied! Jeremiads, to be sure!

It was a process of discovery of her call over time that led Sojourner Truth to be a prophet.

Sometimes it feels like God is keeping who we are called to be a big secret, and we’ve got to experiment and guess until we figure it out.

But even in the midst of that process, we remember God’s words: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you."  

At some point, it becomes clear what God has in mind for us. It is usually something of a surprise – God does have a sense of humor, it seems – but when we share the revelation with others, they usually respond with “Well, of course! Didn’t you know that?” Even if we say “Who, me?” when God reveals his plans for us, others have already recognized the gifts within us.

So who are you? What is God calling you to do? Is there something that tugs at your heart, that urges you to some unknown thing, that demands your attention? It may be God, saying “this is my word to you.”

Go ahead. Say “Who, me?” Then say “Help me, Lord.” Then do it. God’s put what you need within you already. Do it.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2013 Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16, Luke 12:32-40 “People Get Ready”

Fifty years ago this month, the great Curtis Mayfield, an R&B singer from the 50s and 60s, was at the March on Washington. He heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He heard the voices of thousands singing “We Shall Overcome.” Inspired, he wrote a song, one that became something of an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. Some of you may recall it:

People get ready there’s a train a-comin’, you don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”

People get ready. It’s coming. Pay attention. You don’t need to carry anything with you. You don’t need anything but faith.

Could there be a more apt anthem for us today?

If we wanted to find a song that most perfectly expressed what we heard this morning in the Epistle and the Gospel, that passage from Hebrews where Paul teaches what faith looks like and the story from Luke where Jesus says “prepare yourselves,” we could not find a more apt song than “People Get Ready.” It links together the necessity for reordering our priorities and for trusting, in having faith, in the midst of tumult.

In times of great change, there are moments when critically important messages are delivered, and often those who hear them don’t understand the full import of them just then. But there’s a feeling that we have that this is something we need to pay attention to, to take them into our hearts. We need to trust the words.  If we have faith, as Paul says, we trust in “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I suspect that many who listened to Dr. King in August 1963 had no idea the power that his “I Have a Dream” oration would have, and continues to have, to this day, a speech that reminds us of Abraham’s faith just as St Paul reminds us of it in the passage from Hebrews.  Dr. King died before the work of equality for all regardless of skin color could be completed, but he had faith that it would come eventually. Abraham died before the Israelites made it all the way to the promised land but he had faith that his people would get there. And we know that Jesus died before the world truly understood the gift he gave us. We could even say that the world still does not understand that gift.

“People get ready for the train to Jordan , It's picking up passengers from coast to coast, Faith is the key, open the doors and board 'em, There's hope for all among those loved the most.”

Jesus says that there is change coming, change in the way we relate to our Creator. We are to drop all the baggage of our former understanding. We are supposed to make new purses, not to hold our money – Jesus says that’s one of the things that get in our way – but virtual purses to hold our transformed hearts. The old ways and values are replaced with ones that hold love as the most important virtue – love of God, love of our neighbor without exception. When Jesus talks about this, he gives a little mini –parable about a master who comes home at an unexpected hour, and his servants are ready to do whatever he asks. They are prepared. The master is so pleased that he has them sit down for a meal with him – he serves them!

Jesus is saying that the servants have their priorities straight. They are ready to do their jobs, whenever necessary. They are aware that the master can come at any time and everything is prepared. No one is off playing a video game on the computer. No one is away sleeping off too much wine. They’re ready.

Part of the reason that they are ready is because they have faith that at some point the master will return, and because they love and respect the master, they want to be ready for him. They don’t know the hour, but they know that he will return. When Jesus tells this story, he is, in fact, talking about his own return at the end of days, whenever it might come, and he wants those who listen to know that if they belief in him – if they have faith in him – they will be ready, and they will be blessed because of it.

Readiness is one of those things we sometimes worry about, isn’t it? We’ve gotten our guidance about our things we should have in case a hurricane comes – water, canned food, medicines, batteries and radios and such. And every time there’s a hint of a snowstorm in the winter, the shelves of the grocery store are bare of milk and bread and toilet paper – such an odd collection of things people worry about running out of!

But there are other worries about readiness that take less benign turns. I am sure each of us knows someone who saves all sorts of things of dubious value “because I might need it someday.” It may be magazines or newspapers – everyone of a certain age has piles of old National Geographics stuck somewhere in a corner, because you might want to refer to that article about polar bears someday – or it might be canned goods or it might be rubber bands or string or nails or even clothes. Ah, clothes! I have size 8 clothes, and I have size ten clothes, and then I’ve got the clothes I can actually fit into. The odds that I will ever fit back into the size 8s are very slim indeed (a bad pun, I know), but I hang on to them. They are part of the baggage that Jesus says to let go of. I’m expending all this energy keeping stuff that I am not using, because I might need it some day if a miracle occurs and I’m back into a size 8. Of course, by that time, they would be out of style, but a girl can hope!

Those of us who hang on to stuff out of worry need to listen to Jesus and to Paul.

First of all, getting ready for Jesus isn’t like making up your hurricane emergency kit. It’s more like spring housecleaning. If you had the whole family coming to your house for Easter, you’d probably do a good spring housecleaning and get rid of all the old stuff (or at least pack it away) and prepare for the family’s arrival. You have faith that you will have what you need for their visit. You’ve done your preparation work. So all that is left is to be ready to hear their tires on the gravel in the driveway, so you can greet them with joy, just like the servants in the parable. What if you decided you’d do a spiritual housecleaning to be ready for Jesus? What would you want to get rid of? Old fears about whether you need lots of stuff to make you feel secure or good? Old prejudices about “who is my neighbor?” Old beliefs that say that Jesus would never find you loveable or worthy?

And what would you want to hold on to, since “where your treasure is, there your heart is also?”

Faith that Jesus loves you. Faith that we can change the world, a bit at a time. Faith that we don’t really need stuff to feel better. Faith that we may not completely understand some of the good things happening in our world, but that we can see Our Lord in it. Faith that we may not see the change we hope for in the darker things happening in our world, but that Our Lord walks with us and encourages us to help change things.

People get ready. There’s a train a-comin’. You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”


Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, August 4, 2013 Luke 12:13-21 “Hang up the Robe”

It’s been an interesting week for those of us who were participating in our youth mission week. 

We’ve gotten stung by yellow jackets and mosquitos, gotten paint under our nails, gotten blisters wielding unfamiliar tools, and gotten aches in muscles we don’t ordinarily use.

We’ve also gotten the tremendous satisfaction of completing tasks that could be done, the realization that we couldn’t do everything we wished we could have done, and the knowledge that we could accomplish things we didn’t know we were capable of.

This is a lesson that our young people learned, but it was also a lesson many of us adults who helped out learned, or needed a refresher course on.

There was another lesson in the midst of it all. On Thursday, a somewhat frustrating day because the rain washed out our the outdoor projects, we talked about the little voices in our heads, those little doubts and fears, those words of “why am I doing this?,” the wonderings about why these people just couldn’t do this work themselves…in other words, we talked about how common it is for us to judge ourselves and to judge others.

It was an interesting conversation juxtaposed against a remarkable comment by Pope Francis, who when asked about the Catholic Church’s position on gays and lesbians, said “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Who am I to judge? The phrase sent shock waves through the religious world, because, as one news commentator said “Isn’t he supposed to be in the judging business? He is the pope, after all…”

But Francis, while not turning away from traditional church doctrine about homosexual acts, said he wasn’t in the judging business when it came to faithful followers of Christ whose attraction was to people of the same gender. He seemed to be saying “Their faithfulness is infinitely more important than their sexual orientation. I’m more interested in having them know how beloved they are in God’s eyes than in judging them.”

In fact, the pope was saying precisely what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel story. “Who am I to judge?” Jesus was responding to a request from a man to settle a family dispute. The man wanted to use Jesus as a club to beat over the head of the man’s brother, so he could get a share of the inheritance. He wanted Jesus to be his expert witness, the ultimate rabbi deciding a legal matter, as was the norm in those days.  The people of Israel were used to having rabbis or learned teachers serve as judges for all kinds of disputes, and rabbis were used to serving that function. But Jesus knew in an instant what this was about – greed over money, pure and simple – and so he refused to get caught in the middle of it. He refused to sit in the judgment seat. He said, “Who am I to judge this matter?” He didn’t want to have anything to do with a petty argument over money. “Who am I to judge?”

It’s an important question, one we might all ask on a regular basis, because the world encourages us to judge. It says that it’s a good thing to see who works the hardest, who earns the most, who inherits the larger share, who has the most power. We call those people winners and we are encouraged to applaud those people and things that we deem good, in our judgment. It also says that we should look down on those who are not like the winners. We should think poorly of the losers in the world.

But what does Jesus say for us to do? Don’t judge, at least not by the world’s standards. Most certainly don’t judge based upon money or power or ethnicity or religion or race. Jesus says that’s worrying about the wrong things. Jesus says to put aside the world’s standards, which have no value in God’s eyes, and to take off the judge’s robe, for which we have been given no authority, and simply see those who truly need help, and give it. Don’t judge.

This week, one of the prime lessons we all learned as we did our work was “who am I to judge?” In the course of our week at work, we talked to the homeowners we were serving. Their stories were a reminder that for too many of us, we are one paycheck or one medical problem or one major car repair away from being in their shoes, needing some help. And in developing relationships with them, we learned that we no longer felt any need to be in the judging business. We hung up our judges’ robes when we picked up our hammers and paintbrushes. We stopped judging when we saw these homeowners as our neighbors rather than as “needy people.”

After all, who are we to judge? Would we want to be measured against the world’s skewed standards? Or would we prefer to simply be loved and appreciated for who we are, as beloved children of God?

Pope Francis was right. Jesus was right. Who am I to judge? Would I want to be judged in that way? No. I am not God. It’s above my pay grade, as it should be.

But who am I to help? Absolutely perfect. Who am I to offer a hand without judgment? Absolutely beloved for it.