Wednesday, May 28, 2014

“Discipleship: Christ Is Found in the Following” (1 Peter 3:13-22)

In my former life I was a studio art major.

I remember when the college I attended hired the new painting instructor—a man by the name of Joseph Petro. 

Up until that point I had spent most of my time with Design instructor Louise Calvin—a gentle woman and eclectic spirit, and Pottery instructor Dan Selter—another gentle person and incredibly talented artist.

As an art student I was used to messy. Our work area was the basement of the Fine Arts building.  The clay room was, well, messy—the sculpture room was messy—the design room was messy.  It’s not that we didn’t pick up at the end of the day; it’s just that every day the wet clay went flying off the potter’s wheel, the wood chips landed in our hair, and the paint fell in our laps and onto the floor.  We all lived in tattered jeans and tee’s, even overall’s, including  Ms. Calvin and Mr. Selter.  You were crazy if you didn’t.

Imagine our surprise in the fall when all of us were moved to the painting gallery on the second floor the administration building—classical in design with its large multi-paned windows and white walls and molding—lovely—and Mr. Petro stepped in;  a petite man with closely trimmed hair, a suit jacket, dress shirt and tie and dress pants.

There we sat with our art supplies:  a masonite square and rabbit skin glue for making our own canvas, painting palette, oil paints and brushes, turpentine and cotton baby diapers for cleaning brushes, and a stack of newspapers to cover the work area—which is short-hand for MESSY—in front of our very tidy new painting instructor. 
He dressed like that every day.

Like our other instructors he was of a gentle nature, and an accomplished artist.  In fact, Mr. Petro had been commissioned to design the Kentucky bicentennial postage stamp for the US Postal Service. He was known for his medical illustrations, equine art, paintings and murals.

If you’ve ever taken an art class, you understand that there’s a lot to learn, and unlearn, when it comes to creating a painting.  Mr. Petro had so much to offer from how to hold your canvas (sometimes upside down) to brush strokes and oil paint colors to avoid when creating your color palette.  I was overwhelmed.  It was truly like learning to paint all over again.

“It’s all about technique,” Mr. Petro would tell us.  Before he’d paint a bridle for a horse he’d spend months researching rust.

Some of my peers grew restless.  They didn’t want to learn the techniques, they simply wanted the results.  When it came time to display our artwork at the end of the year, it was easy to tell who was following Mr. Petro’s instruction, and who wasn’t.  Some people’s artwork was spectacular and people asked if they could purchase their work—while other paintings went unnoticed.

In the scriptures you and I hear God say through many, many worthy teachers, be they Abraham, Moses, Mary,  or Jesus, “If you trust me I will bless you.”  Another way to hear God is like this, “If you give me your whole life; your purpose, I will provide for you.”

This is what’s called a covenant.  A covenant involves action from two parties, for example Abraham and God; you and God.  “You give me this,” we hear God say, “and I’ll give you THAT.”

What does God want from us when God says TRUST ME? God is asking us to live very close to God and God’s dream for the earth. Turning to Jesus, we get a visual of what trust looks like—prayer; retreating from the busyness of the world to rest in God—and love—helping people, restoring honor to everyone: the little, the lost, the least, the loveless, the last.

“DO this,” says Jesus to the young lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “and you will live.”  Live, we understand, is related both to our quality of life now, and emerges from our life with God.  There is a way to live in the world NOW that has God’s hands, or heart, as the author—God the Bestower, the one who Blesses.  This “way” IS the blessing. 

Peter touches on this in his statement about the goal of baptism  vs. 21 of Chapter 3.  “Baptsim,” writes Peter,isn’t about the removal of dirt from the body, it’s about an appeal for a good conscience.”  Peter writes, “Baptism saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” 

Over the years I’ve come to understand that there is more to a good conscience than being able to sleep at night because I don’t feel guilty because I did the right thing—it’s also about surrendering to God’s grace; God’s way within me, which is love. 
In other words, God’s going to change us from the inside out—change our awareness, which of course will change our behavior—and we, like Christ, will be something to behold:  loving, patient, kind, merciful, generous, faithful (from Galatians 5)…grateful for the opportunity to discover God in our losses, eager to make peace (the Beattitudes).  Perhaps a few other good words for us to consider this morning when it comes to understanding God’s blessing, or gift of good conscience, is enlightenment; seeing as God sees.  The Beattitudes are a great place for us to start when it comes to appealing for God’s good conscience; God’s enlightenment (in which there are many gifts.)

Why does Peter bring up baptism?  Baptism, we remember, is where we said to Jesus, “I will follow you.” 

Have you, as a disciple of Jesus, ever wanted the blessing, the good conscience, the enlightenment--- without the following?

That’s what Peter wants to know.    He certainly can identify with us if we answer yes because, he, too, tried that path:
1.   He tried to walk on water AND worry at the same time.
2.   He tried to stay close to Jesus and deny him at the same time.
3.   Peter lamented the time he had spent with Jesus which produced little in the way of material possessions.  Peter thought that he could have both; faith in money and in God.
What about you?
1.   Have you ever tried to find the capacity for enjoyment through worrying?
2.   Have you ever tried to find God’s good conscience, God’s enlightenment, without creating time for prayer, or service to your neighbor, or to understand a dream, or consider the lilies?
3.   Have you ever tried to love money and God at the same time?
There are more questions:
4.   Have you ever tried to sleep peacefully AND hold on to grudges at the same time?
5.   Have you ever tried to avoid pain AND grow deeper spiritually?
6.   Have you ever tried to avoid people—and love God at the same time?

Just like my friends and I couldn’t produce paintings that were beautiful works of art without following the instructions of our painting professor Joseph Petro, neither can you and I experience the gift of God’s good conscience if we don’t follow in the footsteps of Jesus:
*love God
*love your neighbor
*retreat FROM the world, retreat WITH God
*clothe the naked
*visit the imprisoned
*restore sight to the blind
*don’t worry
*love your enemy
*see the potential for suffering and loss to bring you closer to God

Christ, God’s good conscience, we see, isn’t found in the head—in an IDEA about who he is and how he is related to God—Christ is found in the following, in walking in his shoes, one step at a time. 
There simply aren’t any shortcuts.

Did any of you read your Billings Gazette this morning?  Did you notice my letter to editor?  I’m writing in support of the Nondiscrimination Ordinance—speaking up for the least of these—our LGBT citizens.
This has been God’s prayer in me, that I ACT on what I believe, and I believe God’s love is inclusive, and that Christ modeled how we are to be with people who are excluded—a friend and an advocate for their inheritance, which is GOD FOR US.

May 13, 2014
Dear City Council and Billings Gazette,
Several years ago I found myself sitting on the other side of the desk of a high school track and football coach, and Athletic Director.  I made the appointment with him on behalf of our congregation’s youth group.  They were observing discriminatory behavior delivered by persons they had been asked to respect and obey; their weight coaches.  They were afraid to talk to power, so they asked me, their pastor, to approach the AD with their concerns. 
The young adults shared this story with me, “When you don’t meet the weight trainer’s expectations, they call you ‘gay.’  We are sad for our gay friends.  We are shocked that the school thinks it is okay for these adults to talk this way.  We are amazed that our parents think so highly of these individuals.  If only people knew.”

Children can be great leaders and motivators. 

Discrimination means “acting on one’s prejudice through denial of information, access, or opportunity because of group identity.”  Discrimination negates a person’s reality; minimizing their experience. Let’s not limit this to bullying.  LGBT persons are denied housing, employment, and public services including admission to parks, pools and restaurants.   In our country, the Declaration of Independence supports a different experience for persons.  It affirms that people are created equal, and have the right to pursue Life, Liberty and Happiness.

As our children remind us, discrimination happens in broad daylight and behind closed doors.  I would love to see the city in which I work pass the Nondiscrimination Ordinance so that no one will be impacted by hurtful words and actions.  I would love to see us declare Billings, Montana to be a city aligned with the intent of the Declaration of Independence. 

Rev. Dana L. Keener, Pastor
Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
1221 16th Street West
Billings, Montana 59041
I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do.

Will you pray with me?  Wonderful God, may we say yes to YOU; your life within us.  May we have the attitude of Christ who said, “Not MY will, but YOUR WILL be done.”  May we learn to say thank you when we see your goodness radiating from us.  Amen.

(This sermon was shared with the congregation at Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Billings, Montana by Reverend Dana Keener on May 25, 2014.)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

“God’s Little Helper” (John 14:15-21)

Some times in life we all need a little help.  For many years I voluntarily worked for an organization in Nebraska that provided help to those individuals with disabilities.  The name of the organization was Citizen Advocacy and its purpose was to help people with disabilities to have lives that were independent just like everyone else.  The only problem is, they needed a little help.  Some needed help with medications . . . some with cooking meals . . . others with their finances, just to name a few of the areas in life where help was needed.  To provide this help Citizen Advocacy would recruit individuals—citizens—with strengths in those areas to advocate for these people.  It was a wonderful system that brought independence into the lives of these people.  After all, we all need a little help.

Now I want you to hear the word that I used . . . advocate . . . advocacy.  An advocate is a person who works for, argues for, supports a cause or a person.  An advocate provides a little help to assist the cause or person to succeed . . . to accomplish the goal.  In many translations of the Bible the Holy Spirit is often referred to as the “advocate” . . . ours, this morning, uses the descriptor of “counselor” . . . both work.  Both are helpers.

Knowing that he was going to be leaving Jesus attempts to reassure the disciples that he would not leave them alone . . . no, he would give to them a “helper” . . . he would give to them the Spirit.  I am not sure if this was too assuring for the disciples . . . after all, the Spirit is not something that any of us can embrace and hold tightly onto like cross or a chalice.  The Spirit has not shape or form . . . the Spirit is invisible and moves where it wants to . . . the Spirit cannot be seen . . . cannot be held . . . it is like the air that we breathe.  Yet, this is the best that Jesus can do . . . to offer to them the Spirit.

Yet, the Spirit is the key to it all.  The Spirit is the key that reveals the living Jesus . . . the resurrected Jesus . . . the Jesus who never abandons us.  It is the Spirit who makes the presence of the living Jesus and God known.

I am no Greek scholar, but the writer of John’s Gospel calls the Spirit parakletos . . . which means “advocate”.  It is a term for someone who is called to one’s side as a source of help.  Often this Spirit gets mistaken as one who will step up to the plate for the faithful before the throne of God to argue for God’s mercy, grace, and love.  But, this is wrong . . . this is wrong because God has already given the give of mercy, grace, and love through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This is what creates genuine life for the faithful.  The Spirit is the advocate who brings truth of that love and life . . . the one who reminds us of that love and life . . . which makes faith possible.  The Spirit is our advocate . . . our counselor . . . our little helper.

I know what you are thinking . . . probably the same thing that the disciples were thinking, “Great! But it would be so much better if you gave us something we could hold onto . . . another person . . . a book . . . or even a website that we could refer to on our computers.  But, no!  You give us something that we cannot even see or touch!”  Which is true, but, the Spirit is there . . . always there . . . and, the way that we know it is because we can feel the Spirit.

Let me explain.

The Spirit is to advocate . . . to advocate the way of Jesus . . . to advocate the words of Jesus . . . the love and the grace . . . to advocate for Jesus.  Thus the Spirit is there to remind us of these things about Jesus.  Most often the Spirit—as the advocate—challenges us, makes us feel uncomfortable, frustrates us, prods us, and pushes us to remember Jesus and his life in our lives.

The Spirit is to be a counselor.  Counselors are individuals who help us to understand ourselves . . . help us to understand our lives . . . help us to hear the questions we need to answer in our lives . . . to point out directions to go.  Counselors do not make these decisions and choices for us; no, the counselor is just there to set the table and allow us to make the choices of what we are going to do next.  The counselor’s role is to help guide us through life.

Again, it would be wonderful if the advocate and the counselor—the Spirit—would just go ahead and make the choices and decisions for us.  But, they don’t and won’t.  Yet, the Spirit’s presence is with us . . . and, we feel that presence.

We feel the presence of the Spirit in our lives all of the time . . . the problem is we probably are not giving credit where credit is due.  For example, as most of you know, I commute to Billings to work at Montana State University Billings during the week.  That means that I make the daily drive down 212 to Laurel, take Interstate 90 on into Billings, get off at the 27th Street exit, and haul myself down to the university.  It is not a popular drive for anyone as it often has a variety of drivers moving up and down it.  Some drivers who are slow, some who are fast . . . some who are texting . . . some who are just daydreaming.  It can be a frustrating drive.  Frustration can lead to words and gestures that are best left unsaid.  I know . . . I have done both.

I have spoken words about the heredity of those drivers who frustrate me.  I have used gestures wishing those drivers a “good day”.  Probably nothing that I would want to repeat from the pulpit this morning.  And, it never fails, the second that I speak those words or use those gestures . . . a sickly feeling comes over me.  I am ashamed of myself.  It is the Spirit at work.

Feeling like a heel, I think that those people don’t deserve such treatment from me . . . they probably come from a fine line of genetics . . . they don’t need obscene gestures wishing them a “good day” . . . I probably just made their day worse.  Besides, who knows what sort of day they are having . . . what things are going on in their lives.  And, then the topper: Jesus wouldn’t act that way. 

Have you ever had that feeling come over you after you said something or did something.  This is the Spirit at work.  We have all felt it.  It is just the Spirit reminding us the way and love of Jesus.  It is the Spirit helping us to walk with Jesus.

This is the “little helper” Jesus leaves for each of us.  This is the one who is there to challenge us . . . prod us . . . chide us . . . encourage us . . . support us . . . to make us think . . . as we attempt to live our lives in such a way that we are truly reflective of the living presence of Jesus.  The journey of faith—like life—is not easy . . . we all could use a little help from time to time to stay the course.  The Spirit will do this . . . Jesus promises this . . . we are not alone.  Through the Spirit we come to know the presence of Jesus and God in our lives.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“Discipleship: Christ is Found in Community” (1 Peter 2:2-10)

“Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life”, writes Peter, a disciple of Jesus, “Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.”

I heard a few interesting words in Peter’s writings—present YOURSELVES to Christ, the LIVING STONE.  And that’s where you and I are going to focus our energy this morning.  First, we’re going to meditate on the invitation for us to present ourselves as building stones.  Second, we’re going to meditate on Christ, the LIVING STONE.

I think the following story rings true in many households:

Dad to family seated around the dinner table:  “I could use a few extra hands this weekend.”

Son:  “What do you have in mind, Dad?”

Dad:  “I’d like someone to sweep the sidewalks and driveway while I mow.”

Son:  “Wow, Dad, that’s going to take a lot of time and I’m busy this weekend."  Eying his little sister, the son continues, “I think Sophie should do it.  She doesn’t have any plans.”

Have you ever nominated someone else to do the work that’s being requested, hoping to be overlooked for the assignment at hand?  Has anyone ever nominated you, dodging the invitation to consider the work themselves?  How do you feel when someone nominates you to do something you don’t want to do?  How do you think the other person feels when you are nominating them to do something instead of volunteering yourself?

When it comes to discipleship, Peter is reminding his new congregation of believers that in a vibrant, or healthy faith family, everyone is the same and everyone shows up.  Peter is used to the OLD way of being a faith family—with church leaders such as priests and scribes being seen as holy, and everyone else perhaps not so much.  In our text Peter is moving his congregation beyond the OLD tradition.  In Peter’s NEW church, Peter asserts that everyone has the light of Christ within them.  Everyone possesses a portion of Christ’s spirit—it’s when we come together in community, in common unity that we begin to see the bigger picture of Christ with us. 

As Jesus would say, “No hiding YOUR light under a bushel.”

YOU are important. In fact, towards the end our lesson today Peter will say, “YOU are holy priest.”  What does Peter mean by that? Peter means all Christians are priests; every one of us.  We are all mediators between God and others—we all COMMUNICATE God with us, and for us—we all represent Christ to each other.  We also can all approach God with our joys and sorrows—and we all can carry the joys and sorrows of our neighbors with God. 

Peter loves Christian community; vibrant, healthy community where everyone participates—where everyone takes seriously their God-given ability to communicate God’s love. No hiding behind someone else!

As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we should be encouraged by Peter’s words because the ministry of the laity (laity meaning “people” in Greek) has long been a part of our identity together as the people of God.  Our Identity Statement says   We affirm the priesthood of all believers, rejoicing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit - which include the gift of leadership - that God has given for the common good.”

In the Christian Church, for example, you do not need a pastor to be present in order for worship, including for communion to happen. You do not need a pastor to be present for prayer to happen or for grace to be received.  You can present your whole life to God as an individual and as a congregation.

Peter offers two warnings:   The clergy are not to hoard to the ministry of the congregation!  The congregation isn’t to hide behind the pastor!
How might this be exciting?  How might this be difficult?  The Good News is that in the New Testament we find no evidence of second-class Christians.  We are equals; different, but equal.  And yet, if you find the call to communicate God’s love to the world to be frightening or overwhelming—you might be tempted to hide behind the popular assertion, “Let the Minister do it.  They are the professional.  They are the ones getting paid.”

I’ve always invited the congregation to share in offering children’s sermons on Sundays.  I’ve yet to do this at Central, but it’s coming!  Over the years people have said to me, “But we like it better when you do it.”  It’s as if I am somehow more qualified.  All I’ve had is more experience.  We all share the same Spirit at work in us—according to Peter, then, we are ALL qualified.  

But since clergy often hear, “you’re paid”, a good question for us to ask is this:  paid to do what?    What most clergy understand is that congregations would like to have a person in their midst who can understand and communicate the Bible, who can understand and teach life in the Spirit, who can help shape a worship service, construct a wedding and a funeral and a baptism, and who can help persons in distress—to have time for people.  These areas are commonly called preaching, teaching, administering the holy ordinances, and counseling.  This is the teaching of the seminaries—for three years clergy are tutored in the areas of Biblical studies, Spiritual disciplines, worship and holy ordinances, and counseling in the areas of grief and marriage and other personal relationships. 

And yet over the years, pastors have encountered numerous unspoken expectations—attract young people, respond to the visitors, lead the youth groups, administer the board—I read a search and call form from a congregation several years ago that included “join the Rotary club” and “serve as a volunteer chaplain at the local hospital.”

As our high school and college students prepare to enter the world this month with their degrees, so are the church’s new pastors.  One new pastor lamented, “We’re being turned out to serve some pretty QUIET congregations.”

“Why do you think that is,” I asked her.

Another graduating pastor took the bait and answered, “So many people are hiding from God—they are looking to the pastor for EVERYTHING, as opposed to nurturing their own call to serve—showing enthusiasm for their growing faith, their growing prayer life, and their growing compassion for the poor. I want to pastor a congregation where people are hungry for growth—instead of  shying away.   Don’t they know how wonderful they are?”

I read somewhere that the ideal pastor “is 28 years old and has been preaching for 35 years.  She has one brown eye and one blue.  He parts his hair in the middle:  blond and wavy on the left side, brown and straight on the right.  She has a burning desire to be with teenagers and spends all her time with older folk.  He makes sixteen calls a day upon church members and is always in the office to counsel or just to visit.  She challenges and inspires but never disturbs the status quo.  He condemns sin but never embarrasses anyone.”

One person cannot do everything in a faith community, can they?  Not a healthy faith community any way.  But many persons partnering together to give and receive the love of Christ can.  And that’s exactly how Peter is instructing his new congregation.  Show up, all of you. No nominating little sister Sophia to sweep the side walks and driveway, take responsibility for your prayer life and the well being of your own neighborhood.  Share your faith with others, all of you.  The pastor has a role to play—but he or she is a partner in ministry, not the whole ministry.  Holiness happens when everyone shows up!

Second, Peter writes to his new church, “Welcome the living stone, the source of your life.”  What Peter means by this is receive the living relationship Christ is offering you.  Don’t settle for obeying religious tradition or laws.  Sit directly in God’s presence.  “Like newborn infants,” writes Peter, “long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” 

In other words, when we allow God to have access to us, God will build us up—and the work of compassion will be gift and not burden—and we will do so many things for Christ that we never thought were possible.

How do we allow God to have access to us?  We learn to be still so that God can have space to speak.  We learn to stop so that God can “go”.  In all honesty, simply fifteen minutes a day spent in centering prayer---quieting our inner chatter and sitting in silence—will go far to open our hearts and minds to their own deep places—to Christ who dwells in our soul. 

As author C.S. Lewis confessed early in his conversion to Christianity, “religion ought to have been a matter of good men (and women) praying alone and meeting by twos and threes to talk of spiritual matters.  God reveals God’s self to real people…united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing God to one another…the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community.”

Let us pray:  Gracious God, Help us not to be afraid of you, and of your invitation to share your love with others.  We long for the love of Christ to anchor our common life together—we long for you completeness.  Amen.