Sunday, October 26, 2014

“What If Our Sabbath Included A Day Off From the Internet?” (Romans 12:1-8)

There’s an interesting sentence in our scripture lesson from Paul’s letter to the congregation at Rome.  Paul writes, “Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without thinking.”

When I read this sentence I immediately thought of our two dogs; Dora and Lucy, both dachshunds.  Dora is incredibly food-driven.  She’ll eat and then reflect on what she just bit in to.  Lucy on the other hand isn’t as motivated by food; she’ll sniff FIRST, and only eat a bite of something she thinks is worth eating. 

Paul is teaching Jesus’ disciples, that’s you and me, that just because the world offers us an opportunity doesn’t mean that it’s going to produce in us the spiritual fruit that God longs to produce in us---compassion, generosity, faith, kindness.  These are the inner qualities that SAVE a life; hence, salvation.  Paul would prefer us to test the food first, like Lucy, and eat what’s worthy, least we wind up with a belly full of sour fruit.  What might be sour fruit?  Apathy, selfishness, self-righteousness, and mean-spiritedness are a few of the INNER qualities that can destroy a life.  Have you noticed that, when the culture, or as Jesus would say the WORLD, raises us, we hear a different message than Jesus:  generosity begins at home and stays at home, it’s about ME, success is happiness, our neighbor is lazy and doesn’t deserve our help, there is no God (we live an unsupported life), if it’s in print it must be true? 

Among one of the world’s most recent opportunities is the internet, especially Facebook.   I keep hearing the same conversation over and over.  “I’m off Facebook and I realize I’m a lot happier without it.”  For some people the gift of getting OFF Facebook is more privacy.  “That’s why I never got ON Facebook,” a friend told me, “My job includes a lot of travel.  What am I supposed to post, ‘Not home’?  That’s leaving the door wide open, isn’t it?’” For others the gift of getting OFF Facebook is the acquisition of more time.  The most recent convert to the GET OFF Facebook movement is our oldest son John Andrew.  “I have so much more TIME,” he confessed. 

What’s the downside to getting off Facebook?  Facebook has become one of the major ways people stay connected.  Getting off Facebook is like dying. People who have made Facebook their major means of being in relationship with others will forget you; move on.

How many of you maintain a Facebook page?  How many of you don’t have a clue what I am talking about?

Facebook is an online (internet) social network.  By social I mean a way to be friendly.  Here’s President Obama’s Facebook 
Page for example: LINK.
Now, for all practical purposes President Obama’s page is created and managed by someone else.  Those of us who manage a Facebook page create and manage our own.  But it’s the same concept.  We agree to be friends on Facebook and we can read each other’s page, and these “pages” are filled with inspirational quotes, funny videos, and the ins and out of the latest movies. We can attach a map that lets our friends see where we are at all times throughout the day, and we can see pictures of the grandchildren, the summer garden, and the recent vacation to Yellowstone.   Which means we take the time to update the pictures; pictures we’ve taken with our phone or digital camera or personal camera with the incredible telephoto lens.  How else are you going to get a picture of a grizzly bear?  Get the picture (lol)?  I’m talking about investing an incredible amount of time putting your best face forward.

There’s another social media option that I enjoy and it’s called INSTAGRAM.  This option is an App on the cell phone.  You snap a picture, doctor it so whatever you took a picture of looks great, and send it out to everyone you know.  You can even type a sentence or two below the picture such as “lovely fall in Montana” or “Here’s our new baby Sam.”

But here’s another challenge, our THIRD challenge.  It looks like everyone else is having a much better life than me when I look at the photos on Instagram.  Our daughter-in-law (Megan) is quite the chef and the pictures of the dinner she has prepared for her and Joshua makes my grilled pork chop and peas look, well, plain.  A recent friend posted a picture of the flowers her son sent her for her birthday.  Another person posted daily pictures of restaurants and mountains and oceans and gardens as she and her husband drove across the USA for a whole month—their anniversary gift to each other.  What if your son doesn’t send you flowers?  What if you are lucky enough to travel across town to Jake’s Steak House for your wedding anniversary? 

Everyone’s life seems to look so much better on the internet that it does in real life.  The weddings seem to go off without a hitch, the dog is well groomed, the child is cuter than cute, the food is amazing, the sunset should be featured in National Geographic, and the neighbors are thoughtful and generous.   

At the very least, if we’re going to invest in social media, the least we could do is post a picture of us in the morning BEFORE the first cup of coffee---or the stack of work on the desk at the office—or the trip to the dentist.  I’m calling for a fairness rule!
Our church is on Facebook.  Our building looks perfectly manicured on the outside—busy on the inside—and the pastor comes off as being incredibly attractive and wise (laughter here I hope!)  Braeden and I mange the page.  Look us up!

What happens when we get introduced to the perfect lives of our friends every hour on the hour on Facebook, or Instagram?  Our envy buttons get pushed.  We lament, “Why aren’t I wittier?  Why aren’t I thinner?  Why don’t I have a kitchen that looks like that?  Why doesn’t my dinner look like that?  Why aren’t I visiting Hawaii?  Why didn’t I marry someone who remembers wedding anniversaries?  Oh the seduction!

Now, I’m not suggesting that we opt out of the use of technology all together.  There’s a lot of good there.  We can find all kinds of amazing help and at the time we need it.  No library sign that says “closed” to contend with. I love the fact that I can write my sermons at 1am and pull up a book or an article and quote the source and give credit to the right author—without leaving my house.   We can reunite with old friends and catch up.  Just this year I found a couple from Kentucky who helped me with the youth group.  We’re having so much fun catching up!  In fact, that’s why I keep my Instagram account and Facebook account—connection—especially with persons far, far away.

What I am inviting all of us to do this morning is leave the unhealthy aspects of technology behind—the tendency to compare ourselves to others, to only see a small part of their life and draw conclusions, to refrain from face-to-face conversations with friends where the whole person shows up in their messy home with their messy lives and where life-giving transformation takes place, AND the amount of time it takes to manage all of the information.

How might we leave the bad stuff behind?  The simple truth is:  take a break.  What about starting with Sunday, our “Sabbath”, meaning the day we set aside to rest IN GOD and FROM work.   Why not declare Sundays a TECHNOLOGY FREE day?       

Again, in our post-modern culture a day of rest has lost its prominence.  It’s one more day to be busy, either behind the computer or at the lake or in the store.  If we are going to sincerely offer our whole lives to God, which I understand to mean we’re going to let God touch our whole life—our time, talent, money, work, rest, sleep, meals, and relationships—so that God can TRANSFORM us into Christ—we have to give God our undivided attention.  And we can’t wait for the world to provide the time for us—with the introduction of the internet, we definitely can be entertained all day long.

We have to figure out how to let God get God’s foot in OUR door.  We have to tune some things OUT, turn some things OFF, in order for us to tune into God.

All I have to do is turn on my cell phone and the whole world—people, places, pictures, blogs, music, literature, shopping—is immediately as my disposal.  How many of you, if you are on the internet, have noticed that you usually, innocently, plan to look one thing up, or make one phone call, and before you know it two hours later you’ve glanced at a dozen Facebook posts, read six blogs, browsed the sales rack on L.L.Bean and Land’s End, ordered a few books from Amazon, pasted a few do-it-yourself projects on Pinterest, and pulled up a five-star recipe for macaroni and cheese? 

You went to bed at ten pm, only to still be searching the internet long after midnight?

If God is trying to help us create a life of gratitude, passion and grace—which the Apostle Paul understands so keenly---did the time we spent creating our status update, or reading the status updates of others (which does not tell the WHOLE story), and our tendency to feel inadequate when others post pictures that make their lives seem perfect—help God achieve God’s purpose in us?  Did the many hours we logged on the internet add more life to our life?

Paul understands that enlarging our life is the Holy Spirit’s domain, and the Holy Spirit can only work miracles when we cooperate with the Spirit.  “Be still,” the scriptures instruct us, “Pray without ceasing,” meaning “clear a path both in the inside and in your outer world.”  As John the Baptist will cry in December, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  When you look back on the week, how much time did God get with you?  Do you cringe when you compare it with the amount of hours the internet got with you?  Did God have access to you so God can enlarge your life—time in conversation with real people where your whole life shows up—time in prayer?  Did the posts on Facebook push your buttons and draw you into more busy-ness, or despair? 

Resilience, remember, is God’s gift to us—that orientation of the soul that is able to offer the world love, peace, and patience no matter what the day brings.  God longs to save us.  What are we willing to give up—so that God can truly “come in”?

As I was sitting at an airport ready to board a plane, a young man joined me in the little row of seats.  On his lap was a puppy. Cute, cute puppy—a chocolate Labradoodle.  “It’s for my wife,” he shared with me, eyes beaming, “We lost our family dog last week unexpectedly, and she is so sad, it breaks my heart.  So I told her I was ‘going out for bit’ this morning, which is true, and I boarded a plane for this city to get a new family pet.  She loves dogs.  I love her and I want her to be happy.”

This is how thinks of us.  God is moved by our pain—the pain in our outer life and the pain in our inner life.  God wants us to grow up, to be mature—not for maturity sake but for our own.  So much of what saddens us in our outer life is the result of immaturity or willfulness; the need to control, the ability to live in denial, greed, indifference to the pain of others.  God’s boarded the plane. 

The question is, did we?  Let me know if you take the time to declare one day a week as a retreat from the internet.  And for those of us who don’t make us of the internet, is there something else that would add life to your life if you spent less time with IT, and more time with God?

Let us pray:  Bless us, Life-giving God, with a renewed interest in prayer, and building community instead of carefully-crafted images of ourselves on social media.  May we say yes to your invitation to love and draw from deep faith and to really listen.  It’s you that we want to shape us, and not our culture.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on Sunday, October 19 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)

"Another Four-letter Word" (Matthew 22:34-42)

As soon as the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, the young bride called her mother, who lived a couple of hours away. "How did everything go?" her mom asked.
"Oh, mother," she began, "The honeymoon was wonderful! So romantic, we had a terrific time. But, mother, on our way back, Andy started using really horrible language. Stuff I'd never heard before. Really terrible four-letter words. You've got to come get me and take me home. Please, Mother!" the new bride sobbed over the telephone.
"But, honey," the mother countered, "What four-letter words?"
"I can't tell you, mother, they're too awful! Come get me, please!"
"Darling, you must tell me what has gotten you so upset.... Tell mother what four-letter words he used."

Still sobbing, the bride said, "Mother, words like dust, wash, iron, cook."

When we speak of four-letter words we are referring to words that are considered "dirty" or "nasty" . . . they are negative words that derive bad feelings in us.  They are also words that we use to express dislike and anger.  They are offensive words.  Whatever the case, they are words that our mommas taught us not to say . . . especially if we were proper ladies and gentlemen.  I think that most of us here know what the four-letter words are; and, if you don't we can meet up later after the worship service and I can give you a quick lesson.

In our scripture reading this morning Jesus uses a four-letter word . . . though I do not think that he intended it to be an offensive four-letter word; but, none-the-less, he used a four-letter word.  Jesus said, "Love."  Actually what he said was, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself."  In other words, love God, love people, love everything . . . love, love, love.

And why does Jesus want everyone to "love"?

He went on to say that "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.  In the mind and heart of Jesus this was the whole foundation of life . . . the whole foundation of faith and being faithful . . . it was what God wants from the children.  Everything that God wants hinges on the ability to love . . . to love God . . . to love one another . . . to love, love, love.  Everything!

So why would I be standing before you telling you that "love" is a four-letter word . . . a four-letter word along the lines of being offensive?  Well, for one thing it is a four-letter word . . . l, o, v, e . . . one, two, three, four letters.  For another, I would just ask you to take a moment and to consider the world in which we live in . . . to get a mental picture of the world from all the news that we see on television, read in the newspaper, hear on the radio.  It is not a pretty picture when we consider the world in which we live in as it is filled with violence, war, famine, starvation, hatred and prejudice, injustice, abuse, rape, slurs, and on and on the list could go.  Ours is not a pretty picture that we see in our minds, nor in our hearts.

Maybe that is too big of a picture to grasp.  If that is the case then I would ask you to just picture the world in our neck of the woods.  There is not a day that goes by that I do not read articles in the local newspaper telling me about violence and abuse, drugs and alcohol misuse, prejudices, illnesses, injustice, rape, murder, death, hatred . . . just plain ol' nastiness.  Even when zooming in on a smaller picture of the world, the world still looks--as my two-year old granddaughter would say, "Yucky."

Does either of these pictures look like or reflect "love"?

Psychologists and counselors, and even enlightened ministers, will tell you that our actions as individuals or as groups reflect what we believe and live.  Thus it is that this picture of the world that we see . . . this yucky picture . . . really is not showing "love".  In fact, despite the lip service of most of the world towards this idea of "love", the reality is that we--as the children of God, all of us--are still a long, long way from doing what Jesus told everyone to do.  We do not love God very well . . . we do not love our neighbors well . . . and, we do not love ourselves.  When it comes to love, we cringe at the mere sound of the word . . . especially in the way that Jesus intended us to embrace.  It is offensive.  It is a four-letter word.

Now you are probably thinking that the pastor is a little off his rocker this morning by insinuating that we are a people who are offended by the word "love".  Offended because it is a word that when it is broken down as Jesus as broken it down . . . love God, love others, and love yourselves . . . it becomes something that is quite difficult to do.  We are also offended by the fact that Jesus also said that this word . . . this four-letter word . . . was the whole foundation of life and how we are to live it.  All the law and words of the prophets hangs on this ability to "love".  Love is easier said than done . . . love is tough work.  Because of that, I think that "love" is one of those four-letter words we shy away from in our lives.  Remember, look around the world . . . what do you see?  Do you see "love"?

I have said it many times, we have millions and millions of laws and rules to make us live up to two commandments . . . actually, one commandment--"love".  When one gets down to the brass tacks of all the laws and rules there are in life they all come down to how we are going to treat one another . . . with "love".  That is what Jesus wants us to do . . . Jesus wants us to "love".

But it is hard to love that person in our life who likes to flaunt and rub our noses in his or her wealth.  It is hard to love the team that keeps beating our team.  Hard to love the person who looks different than us, talks different than us, and doesn't really care how we look or talk.  It is hard to love those who think politically different than we do.  Hard to love those whose religion is not our religion . . . whose sexuality is different than ours . . . and our in a different socio-economic class than we are.  It is hard to love a Griz when one is a Bobcat fan.  This "love" stuff--at least the way Jesus expects it--is tough to do.

Yet, Jesus gave us some clues as to where we are supposed to start.  We start with God . . . we start by receiving and accepting the intimate relationship God offers us because, you see, God really, really desires to have a relationship with each and every one of us.  We step into the love and allow it to overwhelm us and open in us the ability to love in a like manner . . . we allow it to open our hearts to this mystery of grace.  In this relationship in which God receives us just as we are, we learn what it means to love with no strings attached.  We learn to love God and love ourselves.  If God can love us--just as we are, then why shouldn't we be able to love ourselves?

This is the key to the second part of "love" . . . loving others as we love ourselves.  If we love ourselves for who God created us to be and for whom God loves, then we can love others in a like manner.

Upon all of this hinges all the laws and words of the prophets . . . upon this is the foundation of life and living . . . upon this is the key to the Kingdom of God.

If the world is ever going to change . . . ever going to be what God desires it to be . . . then we have to "love".  Love as Jesus wants us to love, not as the world wants us to.  Jesus never said it would be easy, but he did say that it was the only way . . . and, it begins with us as individuals.  I imagine there are times when we just wish Jesus would quit using that four-letter word . . . but, we can't.  We are the children of God . . . created in the image of God . . . chips off the ol' block; and, we are the followers of Jesus.  Let us go forth and love.  Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Let’s Get Real (Matthew 22:15-22)

We are entering into the thick of the political storm as election day nears in a couple of weeks.  Campaign signs are sprouting up in yards faster than summer dandelions creating their own sort of eye pollution.  The airwaves are filled with voices prodding each of us to vote this way or that way . . . our television screens are full of talking heads expounding on the virtues of this or that candidate . . . our newspaper looks like one big flier for those seeking office . . . and, people are knocking on our doors, calling our phones, and accosting us any time we wander out of our houses.  They all want our support . . . they want our votes.  The political storm is beginning to reach a tsunami force that will sweep us out into political oblivion.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was tired of it all a couple of months ago.  As a follower of Jesus I find the political season difficult . . . difficult because I truly do want to do as Jesus would do . . . I truly want to do God’s will; but, all the noise of politics seems to drown out the voice of God making it hard to hear what it is that God wants done.  I really do want to follow the words of Jesus when he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  The problem I am having is that everyone who is running is claiming that their way is God’s way . . . and, I am beginning to wonder if any of their ways are God’s way at all.

Give to God what is God’s . . . that is what Jesus said.

Some Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus with his own words . . . so they played a word game with Jesus in hopes that his own words would bite him in the end.  They baited him with a question that would surely turn the people against him, or it would get him in trouble with the Romans.  They wanted to know: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Paying taxes to the Romans was not real popular with the Israelites . . . and, in particular with those who were practicing their Jewish faith as the coins bared a graven image on them of Caesar.  If Jesus came out in support of paying the taxes it would not make him real popular with the people.

On the other hand, if he endorsed not paying the taxes, the Romans would see him as a troublemaker . . . a troublemaker who would need to be eliminated in some manner.  Whatever the case, the Pharisees thought they had finally backed Jesus into a corner and would be rid of him.

But Jesus told them to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and what belonged to God to God.  Jesus wasn’t going to play their game and instead used common sense.  No one could argue against what he said . . . it made sense . . . they were amazed.

And so, what belongs to God?

Hmmmm . . . I know that God made the heavens and earth and all the stars in the sky . . . I know that God created all the creatures of the sky, land, and sea . . . I know that God made man and woman . . . even made them in God’s image.  I know that God made the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the food that we eat.  From what I know I would assume that God made it all and that because God made it, it belongs to God . . . all of it.  I think that that is the reality of it all . . . it all belongs to God, including us.

I soured on politics many, many years ago when the major theme of the campaigns was “family values”.  Every candidate was running on the platform of restoring “family values” in America.  Seemed like a logical campaign promise to make . . . restoring “family values” . . . everyone likes “family values” . . . we all value family; but, no one was asking the right question . . . whose “family values” were we going to restore?  The Republican party’s “family values”?  The Democrat’s “family values”?  Some racist’s “family values”?  Whose “family values” were we going to restore?  I know that from those who were espousing restoring “family values” as a plank in their platform that there were not a whole lot of “family values” I would endorse. 

So, what about God’s “family values”?  To love God completely and to love each other . . . were those not the “family values” that we should be embracing and living as the children of God?  There was not a whole bunch of agreement back then or today as the primary goal seems to be having it our way.

But, here is Jesus telling the Pharisees . . . and, us . . . to give to God what is God . . . give to others what belongs to others.  And it begins with us.

We start where we are as individuals to give to God what is God’s.  First, we give to God ourselves . . . we give ourselves completely to God by loving God with our whole being.  To do that we have to let go of the idea that we are the ones who are in control of the world around us and the lives that we live . . . it all belongs to God and God’s will.  So, we begin with ourselves and giving ourselves over to God . . . after all, God created us and we belong to God.

In giving ourselves to God we give to God our hearts and our minds and our souls . . . we give to God all that we are so that we can come into relationship with the one who created us and loves us.  It is here that we discover peace and God’s will . . . it is God’s peace as Jesus spoke about it in John 14: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

We are to love God completely.

From there we are to love one another as God has loved us.  This is why we have to start with ourselves.  By starting with ourselves we come to know what it means to be loved and to love in return.  That is what we want for everyone.  And it is this experience and understanding of God’s love and loving presence that guides how we are to live within the world that was created by God . . . how we are to do God’s will.

Give to God what belongs to God . . . it all belongs to God.  The problem seems to be us and whose will it is that guides our lives . . . is it our will or is it God’s will?  Looking around the world today, whose will would you say it is?  Now, let us not think that it is easy following the will of God because it is not.  Even Jesus struggled with this in his own life.

It was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus had to choose between the will of the world and God’s will.  It was a struggle that brought Jesus to his knees in prayer.  Do you remember his prayer?  Do you remember what he asked God?  It was a simple prayer . . . the simplest prayer that any of us could ever utter: “Thy will be done.”  Jesus asked that his will not be done, but that God’s will be done.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s.

Let’s get real . . . it is all God’s.  It does not matter what word games we play, it is still all God’s.  Let us pray: Lord, may we live our lives in acts of giving it all back to you.  Amen.