Tuesday, January 19, 2016

January 17, 2016 - Growth in Generosity

In our council meetings, as we have looked at the budget for 2016, we have this mix of hope and despair.  On the one hand, we spent Advent saying “All will be well.”  So for the past few years we have forecasted deficit budgets and every year the deficit has been smaller than predicted.  Every year we make it through.  So we look at the budget thinking, shouldn’t that hope shape our discussion more than the fear of predicting an unbalanced budget? 

               But then there is the reality that even though the deficits aren’t as big as predicted, they are deficits.  We are slowly but surely working through our assets.  We are slowly but surely getting to a point of difficult decisions, and that reality can make hope difficult to embrace.  Remember, “All will be well” does not mean everything will go the way you want it.  It means that no matter how things go, in God’s love, all will be well.

                I think that the phrase that I am challenging you to think about and encounter over these next few weeks applies.  “You are perfect as you are…and you can improve a little.”  We always get through, often by doing a little bit less each year.  And we should be grateful that we always manage to make it through (you are perfect just as you are).  And yet we shouldn’t be satisfied just to make it through.  If we are serious about being the church; doing ministry, we need to support it.

                So continuing on the discussion of growth, I want to talk about growth in terms of generosity.  To be clear, this is not a money sermon, but it a generosity sermon.  It is a sermon that will seek to help you see something that I think you already know; that our culture already knows.  As long as we see value and truth in the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, we know this.  Greed is not good.  Greed and grasping devour us.  Greed separates us from others.  As Scrooge stares at his lonely tombstone and considers Tiny Tim’s empty place at the table of the Cratchit house in the vision of the ghost of Christmas future, he sees the endgame of greed, of endless grasping, the belief that the money and things we own can sustain us.

                But Scrooge wakes up and it is Christmas morning and he is buying the biggest goose and giving things away.  Generosity, as Dickens tells the tale, is joyful.   I have heard it said that the key to happiness is generosity.  In preparation for this sermon, I did a search of the words sad and generous.  The first result was a typo where someone meant to type “said” but accidentally put in sad.  Many of the other top results were obituaries that said something like, “He was such a kind and generous person.  So sad to hear he has passed.”  Now I could try to sell you the idea that if you give more to the church it will make you happy, but that would be inappropriate.  I suspect that in the church we have created too strong a link between generosity and support of the organization.  Supporting the organization may be a part of one’s generosity, but generosity has much more to do with how you see the world in the light of the gospel.  Generosity is living in a world where enough is plenty and water turns into wine. 

                One of the things I noticed when I moved to New England is that people complain more than I remember people complaining in other places I have lived.  It’s not that no one complains in other places; it’s just that I often find myself listening to people tell me what is wrong with a situation, place or event; people that I don’t even know.  It is almost as though people are walking around assuming that something is wrong and that their job is to figure out what that something is and tell the world.  We are walking around the party waiting for the wine to run out so we can tell people that the foolish host has run out of wine.

                I think that one of the greatest disciplines that we can take on to become generous people would be to rediscover the power of the compliment over the complaint.  I will give you that challenge.  Try to compliment at least one person every day, acknowledge the job well done, point out the kind act, give thanks for the kind word.  I had to give a blood test for a physical last week so I went to lab and the technician asked if one of the students in training could take my sample.  I was a little hesitant but said okay.  And she did a fine job, as a good a job as you can do jabbing someone with a needle, but she only had to jab me once and took the samples quickly.  So I said something like, “I think you did that well.”  And she smiled and said, “Thank you” and we made this little connection over a blood test, a job for which one probably does not receive many thanks, that I hope made both of our days a little bit better.

                Generosity is what happens when you start to see what is right with world as opposed to dwelling on what is wrong with it.  When you walk around with a generous vision suddenly the container of water is filled with the best wine.  This isn’t just a Pollyanna, “I’ve found another reason to be glad today” kind of vision but a hint at the different way of looking at the world to which the gospel beckons us.

                In the story of water turned into wine, the world is confused by this generous vision.  The steward speaks to bridegroom saying, “You aren’t doing it right.  Usually the host puts the good stuff out first and saves the inferior for when the guests don’t care what they are drinking, but you have saved the best for last.”  You aren’t doing it right.  There are rules about how generous we are supposed to be.  You can find all sorts of tools to help calculate a proper tip in any situation.  For most people, they give enough so they don’t come off as cheap (usually between 15 and 20% depending on the situation) but they also don’t give more than they feel they “need” to.  In church giving, the level of giving is also something that we have learned.  You will hear people talk about determining their fair share (which is usually, if you were to divide up the budget, $20-30 per person each week).  I have even witnessed a mother tell her grown son not to put $20 in on a Sunday he was visiting (not here) because “that’s too much.”

                At the same time, one of the sad things about the secrecy that we build around giving is the fact that in every congregation I have been in, there are people who are giving far more than their “fair share” and it’s often not the people that you think it would be.  You hear about someone giving $100 a week and you think you know who that is, because you might base it on income or lifestyle, but in every congregation there are people who by cultural standards, are giving too much,  challenging themselves to give and enjoying the fact that they get to give.  They are generous people and we have to give thanks to God for them because we don’t allow ourselves to thank them.  They are not looking to be recognized but we are also not looking to be challenged by their example.

                And generosity is a challenge, whether it is generosity of wealth, generosity of time or generosity of vision.  We have learned too many lessons that tell us that generosity is something to put off until you have obtained a certain level of wealth or success.  We have learned too many lessons that tell us that people should earn our favor and then we can be generous.  Yet this should not be so hard for us as Christians, especially as Lutheran Christians who start from the place of saying we have done nothing to earn God’s favor and yet God has continued to show us generosity.  We have been blessed with life; we have been blessed with love; we have been blessed with hope, and yet we have not done anything that merits that blessing.

                As God has been generous with us, so we are challenged and invited to grow in generosity toward others.  Giving to the church can be a good way to start and challenge yourself, but, if for some reason you feel like you have been generous enough here, then I encourage you to give somewhere else.  Support hunger relief through the Falmouth service center.  Support the new initiative working with homeless members of the Falmouth community.  Support the children in our schools.  Support efforts to work for peace and justice.  Support kind acts and kind words.  Seek to grow in generosity; to be a blessing to others as God has blessed you.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

January 10, 2016 - Baptism of our Lord - Each of you is perfect the way you are...and you can use a little improvement.

“Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.”  These are the words of Suzuki Roshi, a teacher of Zen Buddhism.  I hesitated before offering it up as a text for thought during next few weeks as it does come from a non-Christian resource and I know people can take issue with that in church.  Yet sometimes it can be helpful to go outside our traditional resources to understand ourselves.  When I first read this quotation I was struck by how it voiced an idea that I had been struggling to put into words, namely, that the gift of grace in Jesus does not preclude work, growth and improvement.

                “Each of you is perfect the way you are.”  This is the nature of grace.  This is at the center of how we understand God’s relationship with us.  “By grace you have been saved,” writes Paul.  It is a gift from God.  God has done everything necessary and so there is nothing you have to do.  This is good news.  We are loved as we are.  We are accepted as we are.  In God’s eyes we have been made perfect as we are.  This is why in our tradition we commonly baptize infants knowing full well that they don’t understand it and won’t remember it.  The gift of God is not dependent on their understanding or lack thereof.  It is not dependent on the child’s parents’ understanding or lack thereof.  It is God’s gift to give and in love, God gives it freely.

                At the same time, when we talk about baptism, we talk about entering the baptized life.  When we remember the baptism of Jesus it is always presented as the formal beginning of his path of ministry teaching and his path to the cross.  This is not a one and done sacrament, but rather something that needs frequent reminders.  Baptism is not something we get done but something we live.  Although Luther probably didn’t say it, there is value to the idea that “When you wash your face, remember your baptism.”  Reconnect yourself to that gift so that, when you stumble, and you will stumble, you have God’s gift of baptism that you can fall back into.

                “And you can use a little improvement.”  That’s the second part.  This is where the challenge is for Lutheran Christians today.  One of the great disservices that we have done for ourselves as well as our children is giving the message that somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15 you can learn all you need to know about faith.  In our country we don’t think someone that age is responsible enough to drive, to vote or to drink alcohol.  Recent research has shown that our brains are not fully developed until somewhere in our mid-twenties.  Yet again and again I have seen churches and individuals held back in growth because they are trying to preserve something they had when they were 15, whether it is a limited understanding of God or a particular church structure or a particular way of worshiping. 

                When those things we are trying to preserve fail, we don’t what to do.  The image of God that we had when we were 15 and all of life was before us doesn’t do well with tragedy and terror.  The liturgical worship and well-ordered church structures that shaped that teenage church life don’t seem to connect with people in the same way anymore.  And we, meaning bishops, pastors and lay church members, watch our congregations dwindle in often silent resignation, because we can’t believe that we might have to let go of something that formed us.

                Now the obvious and simple solution I have heard spoken by many people.  We need more members.  This is something else that I have heard bishops, pastors and lay people say.  In the past I have been critical of that wish not because it is wrong but because it usually has nothing behind it.  We need more members but we don’t want to change much to get them and could you make that happen for us pastor?  Where my thoughts have been recently in thinking about the life of the church is that we need more growth.  That includes growth in membership but it also includes growth within the congregation.  It includes, really begins with growing deeper in love for God; growing deeper in allowing the gospel to shape who we are and help us understand who we are.  I think this kind of growth may go hand in hand with the numeric growth that eludes us. 

                Because church participation is no longer a part of being a good citizen, people who come to church are often looking for different things than in the past.  They don’t come looking for tradition but things like support, or depth, or personal change.  As I have said before, if we as individuals are not interested in growing in Christ, we cannot have the expectation that those outside the congregation will want to come and not grow with us.

                But this is another elusive bit.  I can only invite you into that move toward growth.  I can only invite you to go deeper.  I cannot make you or require you without violating the central value of grace.  There is nothing you have to do, only further involvement in this precious gift of baptism that you have received.  There is nothing that you have to do, but there are some marvelous things that happen when people do something with that gift.  I think that part of growing in Christ is learning the humility to say I have places where change and growth might be a good thing.  It is gaining the humility to look at yourself and say that there are places where I could improve a little.

                Discipleship and growth are an extension of the gift of baptism.  It’s like the saying where I began.  You are perfect as you are…baptized, holy, perfect children of God and you can use a little improvement.  The fact that you can improve and grow doesn’t take away from your status as a baptized child of God.  And improving and growing don’t add to your status as a baptized child of God.   Rather, improving and growing allow you to enjoy and cherish that status as a baptized child of God.

                So I am going to put something out there, an experiment if you will.  At the end of Advent season, I invited the congregation to debrief the theme of hope.  A handful of people took me up on that invitation and stayed after church for a few minutes as we talked about the place of hope and how we might be a more hopeful community.  One of the ideas that stuck in my head but that we didn’t know what to with that morning was the idea of some sort of sharing group.  It wasn’t so much a Bible study but a place where people could come together and talk about what was happening in our lives, a place where we could be authentic and vulnerable with one another, listen to each other, pray for one another, be Christ for one another.  It occurred to me that being authentic and vulnerable and supported are the things that set you to grow. 

                So next week, for the discipleship team meeting, I would like to build on that idea.  See who might be interested and see how we might shape this group.  So again, I extend this invitation to you who along with me are people who are perfect in God’s eyes as you are, and people who are invited in Christ to improve a little.

January 3, 2016 - Meditation on the Word made Flesh

In the gospels, Jesus has three origin stories.  The Christmas pageants we remember are usually a mashup of the stories of Matthew and Luke.  Luke has the most detailed account of Christ’s birth.  We get a whole chapter of information before Jesus is born, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, John leaping in his mother’s womb when she meets Mary.  Then we get chapter 2 and “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  This is the story that I talked about on Christmas Eve, the story of a loser born for losers like us.

                Matthew starts pretty much right with the birth.  The angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, telling him not to abandon the pregnant Mary on account of infidelity.  Then we get a story of wise men following a star, King Herod looking for the child out of fear for his throne and a frantic trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree that all the children around Bethlehem should be killed.  The general reaction to the story is that it is not that Christmasy (except for the wise men) but for the original audience, the author sets up the story be a parallel to the story of the birth of Moses which also involves fear of power that leads the murder of children and an Egyptian setting.  Jesus will be the new Moses who sets the people free again.

                And today we hear the origin story in John, this sort of mystical image of the Word of God made flesh.  There is no cute baby for John.  No shepherds or angels or stars in the sky.  Instead John asserts that the one through whom shepherds and angels and stars in the sky have their existence walked among humanity in the person of Jesus.  The force of God that called the universe into being, the quantum state that began the Big Bang, walked among us.

                In some ways, Matthew, Luke and John are trying to say the same thing, but Matthew and Luke are storytellers and John is a philosopher.  Luke especially wants us to see the birth of Jesus as a very earthy experience.  The Son of God doesn’t drop from the sky in a shaft of light, but is born to a mother in a stable with all the sounds and smells that might entail.  God humbles God’s self and walk among us.

                The fancy word for this is the incarnation and it is the idea that the infinite took on the finite, God took on humanity, the Word became flesh.  It is an idea we talked about a bit in seminary.  A couple of our ancient creeds come out of debates about how God pulls this off this business of fully divine and fully human.  Although there is language to express it, we still have to acknowledge a sense of mystery.  No matter how loudly we affirm a particular belief, we can’t prove it nor can we explain it.  We can’t tell you how it works, but it does.  Religion gets into trouble when we start telling people that what we believe actually makes sense.

                Religion is supposed to pull us out of that sensible, rational way that we view the world and also say that there is a good part of that sensible, rational point of view that doesn’t make sense.  Good religion is there to remind you that possessions cannot save you, getting more doesn’t make you more, things are just things.  Good religion is a catalyst for you as an individual to see God present and at work in daily life.  Good religion expands the places where you see God in the world and people in which you see God in the world.  Bad religion is the opposite.  Bad religion tells us that god is available only in a few places (like church buildings), available only through a few people (like priests or pastors) and only available to a few people (the good or the holy, the ones who believe the right thing).

                The incarnation, the Word made flesh, is the ultimate experience of good religion.  For the Christian tradition, if you want to see what God wants life to look like, look at Jesus.  Look at how he cares for the people around him.  Look at how he ignores the very sensible stigmas against unclean people.  Look at how he is willing to eat with sinner and saint alike.  Look at how he allows himself to be open and vulnerable even to the point of the cross.  If you want to know what God wants us to learn, listen to Jesus.  Listen to him again and again say, “Keep watch.  Be alert. Pay attention.”  This isn’t just about waiting for the end of time, but looking for God right now.  Be aware.  Be awake.  Listen to Jesus as he boils down the law into love God with all that you are and love your neighbor who happens to be everyone you meet, friend or enemy.

                But there is another step to this whole incarnation business, something that we don’t talk about so much in our tradition.  Before the incarnation steps off the scene, especially as the story is remembered in John’s gospel, after the resurrection he breathes on his students and gives them the Holy Spirit.  At some level, the incarnation continues within us; the Christmas story continues within us as the church.  The Word became flesh and lived among us and the Word blew itself into our lives.  Whatever the Holy Spirit is and whatever it means, it is God with you, constantly. 

                So the Christmas story is not a story that has ended.   We will take the decorations down and store them for another year.  Our new toys will become our used toys.  We will move on to Lent, to Holy Week and Easter.  And yet, the Word became flesh and lived among us and chooses to be among us now.  Every morning (and every moment) is a new Nativity.  Because the Spirit of the living Word dwells within you, the Christmas story and the Easter story also continue.  We aren’t just replaying them every year, we are characters in the continuing story of the Word made flesh.

                So then how will you live out that story?  What will you contribute to the tale?  As we enter into a year of discipleship we are talking about what it means to grow in Christ, developing how we fit into that story.  You are in the story because of the grace of God in Christ, because the Word was made flesh and lived among us you are part of that story.  Not only are you part of the story, but the whole story is in you.  Your actions, your passion, your words, your character all reflect back on the story that produced you.  Do people look at a place like Christ Lutheran Church and say, “The story that they are living is important and meaningful and I want to know more?” or will they say, “The story that produced the people of Christ Lutheran Church must not be that important.  I’m going to look for a better story.”?

                This is why it is so important that we keep reconnecting ourselves to the story through living as disciples, students of the story.  Because this story we are talking about is amazing.  Remember I said at the beginning, the one through whom all things came into being lived among us.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that is either a mistaken notion, a crazy notion or an amazing notion.  And if we are at all leaning toward it being an amazing idea, then let us seek to live as if it were an amazing life-changing, world-changing idea.

                And that is where we are going to go next week.  This story leads to growth of many kinds and to change of many kinds, life changes and world changes.  We are going to talk about what it means to grow and change in Christ.   We are talk about what means to continue the story of the child born in a stable, the Word made flesh who lived among us.