Saturday, February 28, 2015

Humility and the “Strange Practice of Keeping Death before Us”

This past week I had company while I burned the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday worship service to create ashes for tonight’s service.  Susan Olp, Religion editor for the Billings Gazette, and a photographer, wanted a picture and a conversation around this Christian ritual for Saturday’s Faith & Values page.  I mentioned to Susan that the imposition of the ashes was a “blessing.” 

She paused.  I knew what she was thinking.  Who wants to hear the words, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return?”

In fact, for many years I’ve avoided the reference to dust in the Ash Wednesday worship services I led. I don’t want to upset people.  So I switched to the words “Repent and Receive the gospel.”  As if we’re not a little alarmed by the word REPENT, which means CHANGE!  Who wants to do that?  Change is very, very hard.

Embracing our limited life span is difficult as well.  But the subject comes up in the scriptures.  I’m mindful of the author of the 103rd Psalm who writes:
“15As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

And Psalm 23:
     “And even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

And Psalm 39:4
“Lord, let me know my end,
    and what is the measure of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.”

Did you catch that last reference?  It almost sounds like a prayer.  “Lord, Let me know my end; how fleeting my life is.”  As I repeat this phrase over and over, I realize that the author of Psalm 39 isn’t seeking head knowledge, but HEART knowledge.  The author isn’t asking for a death date to be circled on the calendar, the author is asking for a spiritual boundary marker.  “Let me EXPERIENCE how fleeting my life is…so that I can experience how stable your heart is.”

The understanding of the psalmist’s finality is about information to be sure, but the information isn’t going to be used to plan a funeral but to shape a life; direct a life; support a life.

Things are looking up!!!

This past Sunday the weekly magazine tucked into the Sunday Billings Gazette sported a cover picture of the actress Julianne Moore who nominated for an Oscar for the movie Still Alice.  It’s her fifth nomination.  The movie is about a fictional character named Dr. Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor and a mother of three who is afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Quoting the article by Spencer who interviewed the actress, Moore says “It‘s a movie about mortality and being.  You’re never closer to loving life than when you’re close to loss.”

“You’re never closer to loving life than when you’re close to loss.” 

What I hear in her comment about mortality and being is that when we are in touch with our mortality a sense of alertness; a heightened attentiveness develops.  What Moore is describing is an energy—a POSITIVE energy.  Our days on earth are numbered.  What comes to me is “respect them.”  As a Christian I would add, “And respect who numbers them—respect the source of our numbered days—respect God.”  How do we respect God?  We live for God, we live for love.

I am reminded of a story in the gospel of Luke concerning Jesus and a few unidentified persons.  These unidentified persons have heard stories about two tragedies and they are trying to make sense of them.  We read:

 Unless You Turn to God

13 1-5 About that time some people came up and told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. Jesus responded, “Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all.  Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”

These persons want Jesus to make sense of a tragedy, and Jesus insists, instead, that a “tragedy makes sense of us.”  What can any of us do with our limited days and our limited senses? J

Well, according to Jesus and the psalmist and actress Julianne Moore, we can “wake up.”  How we live our life matters.

This past summer I picked up a little book by a monk from the 6th century named St. Benedict.  St. Benedict founded twelve monasteries in Europe, and his book, The Rule of St. Benedict, is his two-fold instruction on how to  live a Christ-centered life and how to run the monastery. I do not feel called to live in a monastery, but I do feel called to live a Christ-centered life.  I want to live for God.  Isn’t that what all of us said at our baptisms?  We want to live for God, like Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes my call to be a Christian gets a little stale and I need some help to keep moving forward, a mentor. “Rome,” we are told, “wasn’t built in a day.”  I’ve come to understand that a Christian isn’t built in a day, either. 

Have you ever watched someone paint a piece of furniture, or a house?  One layer doesn’t do the trick.  The paint goes on in layers, which are called coats.  Depending on the project, it might be necessary to add some fifteen coats to the object before its true beauty is revealed.

Becoming Christ-like is the result of layering, or coating, in order for our true beauty to be exposed; for CHRIST to be exposed.  The Christian reads scripture not ONCE, but over a life-time, each exposure a coat of paint.  The Christian prays not once, or simply at the whim of their emotions, but regularly, honoring appointments with God, each appointment a layer of paint.  The Christian works in community, serving their neighbor in love, each act of love a layer of paint.  The Christian worships, entering into the dialogue offered through the songs and prayers and sermon and the passing of the peace, each conversation a layer of paint.  The Christian forgives endlessly, each act of forgiveness a layer of paint.  The Christian experiences beauty in many forms be it the ballet or the beach or the flight of a bird, and each experience of beauty is a layer of paint.

Faith, as I understand it, is trust in God’s help.  To quote the author of Psalm 27 “I believe I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living. ”  However, I had for many years thought that God’s goodness existed in my life to answer to my will.  “I want this and I’d like that,” I’d pray, “Reward this and punish that and please don’t let me live without this, that, and the other.”  This type of prayer makes ME quite LARGE; it makes ME SMART, it makes ME the LEADER.

When I came to my senses through many faults of my own, I had to laugh.  What in the world did I really know about what was good, and right, and necessary for anyone, including myself?  Thank GOD for NOT answering all of my prayers.

Why?  Because only God knows.  Jesus teaches us the better prayer life, “For I came not to do my own will, but the will of God who sent me.”   This is the proper perspective.  This type of prayer makes GOD quite LARGE; it makes GOD SMART, it makes GOD the Leader.
But would I follow?  Would I abandon the longings in my own heart and let God make me over…into compassion…into God’s image…into God’s heart?  Now we are sneaking up on humility as I understand it.  Faith asks “Does God exist?”  Humility asks, “Am I willing to listen?” 

Well, who knows best, God or me?

St. Benedict, in his instructions to his monks, to persons who long to stay in dialogue with God continually (to pray without ceasing) that they may indeed act purely for God, understands that we are more apt to  stay motivated to live for God if we “keep death daily before our eyes.”  We have to remember the real race we are running.  It’s not success, it’s transformation—becoming ALL God.  We are all running the race of transformation until death—death being the great consummation of our self IN GOD. 

So in the 4th chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule for beginners, the chapter given over to Instruments of Good Works, #47:  “Keep death daily before our eyes.”  

Well, you know, the first time I read that, I shuddered.  There’s the death thing again—so foreign to a society that thinks it is going to live forever.  We drink green drinks loaded with ginger and kale, and replace body parts, and book flights to Hawaii on our cell phones from the hospital.

For St. Benedict, monastic spirituality is a spirituality of the heart; it is entirely directed to helping the monk discover his own inner source of spiritual vitality and living in harmony with it.

By instructing a monk to “keep death daily before our eyes” Benedict is reminding his student in pursuit of Christ that there is an urgency.  Life is short, but it matters, don’t give in to complacency.  Today might be the only day you have to abandon your heart to God; indeed, it might be the only hour.  There’s an urgency in the story I shared from Luke’s gospel about the tragic deaths and Jesus’ invitation to focus on our own inner renewal and not the faults of our neighbors.  “You might perish just as easily as they did.”

To miss the transformation from living for the love of ME to living for the love of God is, according to Jesus, is the real tragedy.  

Many, many years ago a friend told me the story of how his family hated him.  Since he was a pastor, he told me the story of how his church didn’t like him very much, either.

“I was in a constant state of anxiety, depression, and rage,” he confessed.  “Since I wanted to keep both my family and my congregation, I sought help.  But I didn’t seek help from a counseling agency, I learned how to seek help from the Holy Spirit of God.  God put me back together again; turned my thinking around…emptied me of the illusion of control and filled me humility…so God could fill me with grace.”

My family loves me…

My church loves me…

I love me…

My life truly began when I learned how to get out of the way of the One who’s way was INSIDE of me. 

And as St. Benedict would add, “Towards the ONE (GOD) all of us are moving.” 

I’ve noticed it’s at an alarming speed.

Isn’t this a good thing—to be, in the end, totally absorbed in the goodness of God?


I don't know about tomorrow
I just live from day to day
I don't borrow from its sunshine
For its skies may turn to gray
I don't worry o'er the future
For I know what Jesus said
And today I'll walk beside Him
For He knows what is ahead

Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand

(This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday--February 18, 2015--by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, MT.)

“What if it is OURS, not MINE?” (Acts 2:42-47 & 4:32, 34)

A young man saw an elderly couple sitting down to lunch at McDonald's. He noticed that they had ordered one meal, and an extra drink cup. As he watched, the gentleman carefully divided the hamburger in half, then counted out the fries, one for him, one for her, until each had half of them. Then he poured half of the soft drink into the extra cup and set that in front of his wife. The old man then began to eat, and his wife sat watching, with her hands folded in her lap.

The young man decided to ask if they would allow him to purchase another meal for them so that they didn't have to split theirs.

The old gentleman said, "Oh no. We've been married 50 years, and everything has always been and will always be shared, 50/50."

The young man then asked the wife if she was going to eat, and she replied, "It's his turn with the teeth."

Q: Why wouldn’t the shrimp share his treasure?
A: Because he was a little shell fish.

One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God.  So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.  The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we've decided that we no longer need you.  We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just go on and mind your own business?”

God listened very patiently and kindly to the man.  After the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this?  Let’s say we have a man-making contest.”  To which the scientist replied, “Okay, we can handle that!”

“But,” God added, “we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”

The scientist said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

God looked at him and said, “No, no, no.  You go get your own dirt.”

As astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “If you really want to make an apple pie from scratch, you have to invent the whole universe.”

All three of these humorous stories and joke point to a simple truth:  Everything is on loan from God.  We don’t posses anything, we simply borrow!

Riddle : Why can’t we take it with us?  Because it’s not OURS!

As Christians we often talk about the difference between possessing something and borrowing something as OWNERSHIP verses STEWARDSHIP.  Turing to the OT Book of Genesis we are very much aware that we are invited to partner with God in caring for the earth, we don’t own it.  AND we are aware that God INVITES Adam to name the animal and plants because it’s God’s place to do so—to do the asking that is.

In our lesson today from the New Testament book of Acts, we encounter the early followers of Jesus sharing their possessions with the faith community.  “Everything was held in common,” we hear, and “No one owned anything.”  The New Testament church wasn’t relying on the stories from the Old Testament for motivation, however, they are looking to the resurrection.
“This is how much God loves us, so let us love one another.”  By sharing everything, holding everything in common, they were putting the practice of love into action.   They were expressing their profound love for one another as God had expressed God’s profound love for humanity by the resurrection.  “Let’s keep going,” God says to us, “I forgive you.”  Love was the early Christians’ way of life together, and sharing everything was their way of living.  Every need was met.  No one did without.  After all, we are ALL on loan from God. What they were expressing was a deep respect for humanity! 

This deep respect is hard to find these days.  Pope Francis recently commented, “The world would be a better place if people had less dogs and cats and more babies.”

As you and I grow into our new purpose statement, “To be a WELCOMING COMMUNITY that FOLLOWS the CALL of JESUS to LOVE GOD and NEIGHBOR,” we must add to the list of questions we are asking ourselves, “How do we live with the knowledge that it’s all God’s stuff,” and 
“How do we express love for our neighbor—a deep respect?”  Our board has expressed a desire to get to know the neighborhood, which is a good thing.

But we won’t look like the early church.  We live more apart than together, and our entrance into the neighborhood won’t be every day. 

In the Weavings journal, Christian author and teacher Marilyn McEntyre suggests the following spiritual practices which I think might be excellent goals during LENT for our congregation in light of our purpose statement:  

  • Begin every day for one month with the question “What can I share today?  Where can I pay it ‘forward’?  What do I have that might be given away?”  (This past week I filled a downtown parking meter with two hour’s worth of coins knowing I only needed thirty minutes.)

  • Create a “caring station” in the church where people can donate items and/or use the items collected free of charge—flower pots, children’s clothing and other house goods.  We have such a room for GATEWAY HOUSE, the abused women and children’s shelter, but the items are collected by Church Women United and designated.

  • Journal around the questions “What do you mean by WE instead of ME” and “Who are WE and where does US become THEM?”  I’ll add to the study the discipline of noting in a calendar how much of your day is about you—and how much of your day is about your neighbor, the community?

  • Set aside minutes each week to make a phone call to someone who might be lonely.

  • Practice letting go—if you bring something new into your home, let another object GO.

  • Take a “good for the planet” walk through your home, and through the church.  Are we doing everything we can to support the planet’s health?

  •  Practice intercessory prayer for others for their physical health and their spiritual health--the temptation to be greedy; to hoard possessions.

Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, records that the early church grew because people “liked what they saw.”  What did they see?  They saw compassion.   They saw people living differently in the world—with deep respect for people.   Love in action is AMAZING TO BEHOLD.

Prayer:  Gracious God, may our church embrace your deep respect for humanity.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings on February 15, 2015.)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

“This Little Light of Mine” (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

Traditionally this is Transfiguration Sunday . . . the gospel reading for this day focuses on the meeting on the mountain between Elijah, Moses, and Jesus in which Jesus was transfigured.  “Transfigured” means “to change the appearance of something or someone” . . . in this case Jesus we are told that not only his clothing changed, but also his physical features—in particular, his face—to a dazzling white.  The writer of the Gospel of Mark states, “. . . and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  Over in the Gospel of Matthew the writer remarks, “There he was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white the light.”  In Luke’s Gospel the writer tells us, “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.”  It sounds as if Jesus got all shiny and bright.

In this moment the “holy” is revealed . . . the “holy” is exposed . . . and it shines like a bright, blinding light that radiates forth out of Jesus’ being.  The light shines and all see.  So often the “holy” is symbolized by “light”.  In the writings and stories of the mystics and religious, the “holy” is the “light” that breaks the darkness.  In many gospel hymns, it is always the darkest before the light of the dawn breaks through.  In looking at many of the paintings and artwork of Jesus, what is it that we see radiating from the image of Jesus . . . what is that aura that surrounds him?  It is light.  “Light” symbolizes the “holy”.

It is a “light” that is in all of us.

The Apostle Paul tells us: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”  In other words, this “holiness” . . . this “light” . . . is within all of us as the followers of Jesus.  And, because this “light”—this “holiness”, is within us, it is our responsibility and calling to let it shine.

In my mind I picture ourselves like a lantern.  When lighting a lantern we begin with a small flame at the base of the lamp . . . a small, flickering flame that doesn’t put much light out.  By turning the wick up, making it bigger, it produces more light . . . it reveals much more . . . it allows us to see.  That is what we are called to do with this little light of faith that is seeded within each and every one of us as the followers of Jesus.  We are to shine.

Remember the story in the Gospel of Matthew (22:36-40) when Jesus gets asked the question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Remember how Jesus responded?  Jesus said: “’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.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

We are to let our “light” shine . . . this little “light” that is within each and every one of us. 

So, we begin with ourselves.  We begin with our own faith.  We begin with our own relationship with God.  We are called upon to turn up the wick.  We are to turn up the light within us until it transforms . . . changes us . . . and makes us into who God created us to be as God’s children.  As Jesus stated, “This is the first and greatest commandment.”

In the Transfiguration Story, we are given a glimpse of what could be.  In Paul’s words he pulls back the curtains and allows us a glimpse of what can be.  There is hope . . . there is potential . . . and, there is opportunity.  It is no surprise that these are among the “holy” words that are shared this morning in our worship service . . . this possibility of transformation and change.  We are on the brink of moving from one season of the church year into another . . . from the revelation of God being available to all through God’s desire to be in relationship with all of God’s creation to a season in which the faithful followers of Jesus are called upon to examine their lives and grow closer in their personal relationships with God. We move from Epiphany to Lent . . . from revelation to examination.  From “I really, really like this God that is revealed” to “what do I have to do to make it happen?”

We are on the nexus from here to there, and there is hope.
We begin with ourselves.  We begin with our relationship with God.  We examine, discern, and pray . . . and, then, we do it a little more.  We explore our relationship with God: Is it what I want it to be?  Am I living a relationship that brings me closer and deeper with God?  Are God and I “tight” in our relationship, or are we just casual acquaintances?  Am I building a roaring fire of faith, or am I just fanning the wick to barely keep it burning?  We work on building our relationship with God “with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds.”  We learn to love God and to love ourselves.

That is the only place that we can begin.  We begin where we are.  Until we can learn to love God and ourselves, we can never enter into the second important commandment . . . to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Only when we build the “light” within ourselves can we ever allow it to shine forth and be seen by others.

On this Transfiguration Sunday we enter into an “opportunity” to work on letting our faith grow and shine in ourselves and the world around us.  We have an opportunity to break the darkness within ourselves and become a beacon in the lives of others.  And, we begin with ourselves. 

As the children’s song goes:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
Every day, every day, I’m going let my little light shine

Let us go forth and let our lights shine.  Amen.