Sunday, December 14, 2014

“What Is a Glorious Life?”

There seems to be a few more people standing in lines these days in the stores—and a few more items in their cart.  In honor of the December shopping spirit I’d like to share some humor with you this morning:

The checkout line at the hardware store was getting longer and longer as the clerk labored to get the new cash register to cooperate.

At one point she wailed "Oh no, NOW what do I do? It just rang up sixty-four thousand, five hundred d seventy four dollars in sales tax on a ten-dollar sale!"

Suprisingly, the customers in front of me didn't seem too upset by the delay.

Some even chuckled sympathetically. It wasn't until I got near the front of the line that I saw the neatly hand-lettered sign in front of the register: WE ARE CURRENTLY DOING BATTLE WITH OUR NEW COMPUTER FOR CONTROL OF THE STORE---WE APPRECIATE YOUR PATIENCE.

As I approach the check-out lanes in both the department stores and grocery stores during the holiday season, I give myself a little pep talk about belonging to our God who is “slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”  After all, waiting is an “Advent” attitude! “Just breathe,” I say to myself as I count the number of people in line in front of me, “and smile.” 
Just in case smiling is a challenge, I grab the People magazine or the National Enquirer and laugh at all of the ridiculous reporting on the movie and television stars.  That’s my “how to survive Christmas shopping” tip of the day.  Read the tabloids and enter their world.  Their stories are so painful!   Angelina Jolie is finally leaving Brad Pitt (who is really a drunk and a slob), recently wed George Clooney and his wife bicker at night; Robert Wagoner, husband of drowning victim Natalie Wood, is “hiding something,” and actor Tom Hanks is fighting for his son.  Next week someone will be too thin, too heavy, so handsome, so rich, or so vain.

However, I am not the same person reading the junk in the magazines that I once was.  When I was young I clung to the pictures of the lovely Hollywood stars.  They set the standard for beauty and for life.  I practically killed myself trying to be that thin.  And I practically killed myself trying to be that successful or at least talented enough to notice—which I interpreted to mean important.  Is that some of YOUR story?  However as I thumbed through the magazines THIS year, I felt a little prayer rise from my heart.  “Bless these dear people,” my heart said, “Whose lives are terribly troubled.  They deserve more than to be fodder for the magazines.”  After all, the rich and famous struggle with the same things we do:  time and money management, self esteem, faith and values, fear and addiction, to name but a few.  So I said a prayer for them, and I said a prayer for myself.  A vibrant life rich in the essentials is very hard won—and is impossible WITHOUT God.  This isn’t a criticism or judgment aimed at persons who aren’t religious—this is an invitation to EVERYONE, religious or not, to return to the source of their life (GOD) and embrace all that God has to offer. 

I am reminded of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or more aptly named the Parable of the lost and why spiritual author Henri J. Nouwen selected a picture of the Prodigal Son to represent what the gospel meant to him.  In the story a man has two sons, one who leaves, rather rudely; another who stays, rather smugly.  Both sons represent the two ways we abandon God—we simply flat out walk away and indulge our senses, or we indulge our pride and become self-righteous  (to be self-righteous is to give ourselves credit for our goodness and not God.)  Either way we’re lost; quite unhappy.  The people around us don’t like us, either. The only way to be found is to find our way home—to reunite with the loving Father who isn’t put off by our recklessness or our inability to correctly size up the situation.

Now, to come home TO ME means to surrender to God—to make time for listening prayer and for bringing honor to the least of these—and to spend less time with the world’s toys and tantrums.   What does surrendering to God mean to you?

This is the message Paul delivers in his letter to the church at Ephesus.  Jesus embodies God’s glorious life as it was meant to be lived by US. What do we observe in Jesus’ life?  We observe a compassionate life, a communal life, and a courageous life.

What does it mean to be compassionate?  Several years ago I attended a retreat led by Tony D’Souza, a Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist.  D’Souza pointed out that Jesus that Jesus didn’t compare people, he simply enjoyed them.  “Compassion,” D’Souza noted, “Is where Jesus was firmly planted, and compassion is LOVE (I care just as much about your spiritual growth as I do my own) plus UNDERSTANDING (connecting with the basic needs of another without interpreting or conveying criticism, blame, or demands.)    People have more things in common than we do that are different.  When we give each other the chance to tell our story—when we become good listeners—we discover that the fear that stems from human uniqueness subsides.  We don’t have enemies, we simply have friends we haven’t met yet.  Gene Knudsen Hoffman, an international peacemaker, writes:  “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.”  
Jesus wasn’t interested in focusing on people’s misdeeds.  His energy wasn’t focused on people’s past.  Jesus’ energy was focused on their potential.  Where they could GO with God’s direction.  So Jesus listened; listened to their story.  If we listened to one another this morning, what might be some of the things all of us in this room would list that we need?  (share)  Did the sanctuary become a little warmer – and the human spirit more hopeful?   

What does it mean to be communal?  For Paul, to be communal is to be family.  “God had everyone in mind before you and I walked this earth,” writes Paul.  Who among us has the right to say to anyone, “God hears me, but not you?”  Paul writes that we are all adopted into God’s family not through any means of our own, but through Christ.  Who among us has the right to say to anyone, “You must have slipped past Jesus on the way into the world?”  We can’t.  To embrace our life with God is also to acknowledge the same joy and hope for our neighbor.  Upon closer inspection what we understand is that God’s Spirit is at work in everyone—and not just a few.  So we don’t have to fix people. We’re all on the same journey! We simply have to ask each other, “How are you and God getting along?”  The more we are willing to answer that question, the stronger the human family becomes.  This is a very important  role of the church—to return us to the primary relationship---with God.

What does it mean to be courageous?  For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus speaks to the heart of the matter:  striving for the holiness of all things.  In verse 10 we hear, “(God) set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything…”  Jesus simply couldn’t sleep or eat until everyone understood that it’s all God and its all good:  women and children, Jews and Gentiles, people and planet, lepers and lost sheep. We belong to a God who demands that we treat everyone and everything with the upmost love and respect.  Like Jesus, we are to do the work of restoring honor to all of creation. 

As you and I well know, there are a lot of voices out there telling us what it takes to live a glorious life---People magazine, the National Enquirer, even the New Yorker----we are here because we chose Jesus’ voice.  We celebrate our living God’s invitation to experience glory as achieved through:

Compassion—love plus understanding

Community—we, not me

Courage—striving for the holiness of all things

Have you noticed that the older you get, the more beautiful God’s way with life becomes?

Let us pray:  Oh God, we have to live for something more than just ourselves.  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana on December 7, 2014.)

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