Sunday, July 26, 2015

“In the Presence of the Holy” (John 6:1-21)

It is as plain as the nose on your face.

Sometimes the solutions to the problems and issues we all face are as plain as the nose on our faces.  Or so it should seem.

We have heard the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand . . . or even quite a few more thousand as the writer does not make any reference to the fact that there were probably women and children with the five thousand men; but, any case, we have all heard the story about how Jesus fed the five thousand.  Being faced with a huge . . . and hungry . . . crowd, Jesus raises the question to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”

Philip was no dummy and he tells Jesus that it would take months of wages to have enough money to buy food for all these hungry people . . . money they did not have.  It was an impossible task.

Andrew, another of Jesus’ disciples, pointed out a boy who happened to have five loaves of bread and two fish . . . but, like Philip he realizes that it is an impossible task and that five loaves of bread and two fish wouldn’t even come close to feeding the crowd, much less feed the disciples and Jesus.  It is an impossible task!

Even though the writer of Mark’s gospel doesn’t say it, I sometimes imagine that Jesus must have rolled his eyes at the immaturity and ignorance of his disciples.  As far as Jesus is concerned, the solution . . . the answer . . . to the question and task at hand is as plain as the nose on their faces.

Jesus tells the disciples to have everyone sit down.  Then he took the five loaves of bread, blessed them, and passed them out to the crowd.  In a like manner he also did the fish.  The people ate to their hearts’ content . . . as much as they wanted . . . and, there was plenty to eat.  In the end, when they gathered up the leftovers, there were twelve full baskets of food.  Those gathered, including the disciples; saw this whole incident as a sign of the miraculous.  They declared: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”

Most often, when we think of miracles, we think of an act that is beyond our understanding or comprehension . . . something spectacular . . . something brought on by the supernatural.  Theologically a miracle is described as the revelation of the presence of the Holy . . . a revelation of the presence of God.  In the case of the feeding of the five thousand, I would say that what happened fits into the understanding of both realms’ of describing a miracle.  What happened seems difficult to explain . . . feeding over five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish . . . and, as the people recognize, the Holy is exposed . . . they know that they are in the presence of the Holy.  What takes place in our reading this morning is a miracle—plain and simple.

Whatever the case, biblical scholars and theologians have explained it over and over for generations.  It is a supernatural miracle . . . in the blessing of the bread and fish to God by Jesus the cosmic tumblers clicked into place and the food magically multiplied to point that there were even twelve baskets of leftovers.  It has been explained as a movement of the Spirit through the people . . . seeing the compassionate act of sharing by the boy, the people are moved to share from the resources that they have; thus, enough food is gathered from the crowd to easily feed everyone.  Either way, argue the scholars and theologians, the Holy is revealed.  The Holy is revealed and the people see it.

How you see this I will let you decide for yourselves.

In the meantime, I want you to go back to that statement . . . “As plain as the nose on your face.”  One of the purposes of these stories is to get the listener to open up his or her eyes, hearts and minds to see the hidden truth that is in plain sight.  The story is attempting to train us to see that which is present in our own sight . . . as plain as the nose on our faces.  The Holy surrounds us like the air that we breathe . . . and, because the Holy is around us, always present, we have the ability to welcome it into our lives.

Jesus asked: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”  Jesus asked the question knowing good and well that the answer and solution was right before them all.  The answer and solution was there among those who had gathered.  It was in the wholeness and holiness of those present.

Bread . . . a symbol and metaphor.  Bread represents the basic need for nourishment to feed our bodies.  Bread, in the hearts of the faithful, represents the basic need for nourishing our souls.  Bread is a symbol of our basic needs.  It is both practical and sacramental.  Thus it should come as no surprise that bread is central to this story.  Jesus acknowledges this understanding in stating that the people must be fed.  Jesus then models the means of delivering of the bread to the people to meet their needs.  It is in through and within the presence of the Holy that surrounds them . . . always surrounds them . . . that the people are fed.  With full tummies, they acknowledge the presence of the Holy.

So it can be for us as the followers of Jesus.

One of the tools that community planners use when they come into a community to assist the community in dealing with problems and issues is called “mapping”.  Mapping is simply taking the time to carefully take a look at a community, tally up its resources, and then to attach those resources to the issues and problems being dealt with.  Mapping is built on the belief that each and every community has the resources—within their presence—to handle the problems and issues that they are facing.  In other words, the solutions to many of their issues and problems are right there in front of them . . . as plain as the noses on their faces.

And, I believe that.

Too often communities and groups gather together to lament and complain about the issues and problems that they face.  They moan and groan and perpetuate the problems . . . allow them to fester . . . and, they think that the only solution to these problems is to bring in the experts—those people who live more than 45 miles away—to solve the problems for them.  Often it is expensive and the problems do not get solved.  Especially when they probably have all the keys to the solutions that they really need already within the community.  The problem is that they have not opened up their eyes to see.

How is this done?  Simply by having everyone participate . . . by having everyone putting his or her talents and gifts on the table . . . by sharing and caring.  Is it possible that the “miracle” occurs in the story because the people are moved by the boy’s compassion to place on the table the food that they had?  Who knows for sure . . . but what we do know is that the people were fed and the Holy was exposed.

Too often in our lives we waste a lot of time looking around for the big supernatural occurrences or miracles to come sweeping out of the heavens to save us from whatever is ailing us or creating havoc in our lives when the answers to all our prayers are right there in plain sight like the noses on our faces.  Jesus stated that whenever two or three are gathered in his name . . . he is there.  Jesus believed in the Holy . . . trusted the Holy . . . and, modeled that belief by taking a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish, blessing them, and allowing the Holy to take over.  Out of what seemed to be fragments and scattered groups of people came the bread necessary to feed them all.

It can be the same for us all.  If we open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands . . . if we learn to share from that which we have and have been blessed with . . . if we acknowledge the presence of the Holy . . . we, too, can know the power of the God who loves us . . . who cares for us.  We, too, can experience miracles.  Jesus tells us that this is as plain as the noses on our faces.  Believe.  Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2015

“Respite for the Soul” (Mark 6:30-34)

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus hits the ground running.  The writer of the gospel describes innumerable act of ministry, healings, miracles, teaching, and preaching . . . it is non-stop action.  So it was also for his disciples.  As you remember from a few weeks ago, Jesus sent the disciples out on their first assignment to go forth and preach the good news and preform ministry on those they encountered in nearby villages . . . a hugely successful endeavor.  Thus it should not come a surprise that we find Jesus urging his disciples to “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Jesus and the disciples were tired.  They needed rest . . . they needed nourishment . . . they needed time to refill.  They needed time to refill their bodies and their ultimately their souls.  They needed respite.

The definition of “respite” is “an interval of rest and relief . . . a temporary suspension or reprieve.”  In many cultures throughout the world there is an understanding about the usefulness and power in “taking a break”.  In some cultures there is the practice of siesta or the mid-day nap.  Basically everything shuts down while people relax and nap before heading back to work or their daily tasks.  Research has shown that workers are more productive in the workplace if they are allowed to take a nap.  Now mind you, we are not talking about the good two-hour drool out of your mouth sort of nap, but a quick five minute snooze.  Researchers have found that this re-energizes and helps the workers focus on the tasks before them.  In many professional occupations they have harnessed the power of sabbaticals to re-energize themselves and be more productive in their professions.  It is all respite . . . rest for the mind, body, and soul.

What Jesus was suggesting to the disciples was not some random practice, but a discipline that he himself practiced.  Throughout the gospels we are told and reminded of the times that Jesus went off to be by himself . . . that he went to a quiet place . . . to rest . . . to pray . . . to find respite for the soul.  And, we are also told and reminded by those same writers that each time he came out of those times of respite that he jumped by into the fray of his ministry with new-founded focus, power, and effectiveness.

Hearing this prompting of Jesus to his disciples to “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” . . . well, we, too, are called to do the same within our lives.  We are called upon to be good stewards of our lives and our faith.  We are called to the practice and discipline of “respite for the soul”.     We are called to intervals of rest and relief . . . times of suspension and reprieve from the busyness of our lives.

The bottom line is we all need a break every once in a while . . . if not more.

At the university I work in an office that has seen many of my co-workers dealing with aging parents.  Many of my co-workers parents have gotten older and their bodies have begun the process of change.  Some of them have seen their parent’s health and bodies deteriorate . . . seen more hospitalizations . . . and they have witnessed their once strong and independent parents become more and more dependent as age exerts itself upon them.  They have seen their parents drop into that shadowland of dementia and Alzheimer’s . . . lost in a fog that only briefly allows their parents to be themselves.  Thus they are spending a lot of their free time with their parents to meet their needs and to make sure they are safe . . . most of them are spending all of their spare time taking care of their aging parents. 

The result is that they are tired . . . well, actually they are exhausted.  Their exhausted is affecting their lives.  They are not as sharp as they normally are in the office . . . it is hard to be sharp when one is tired.  They are worn out.  I know that I am preaching to the choir as some of you have had to take care of your parents or other loved ones in similar situations.  Over and over again, many of co-workers have said that it was a relief just to come to work and to get away from the constant demand of caring for a loved one.  That despite the fact that it is “work”, they were finding a sort of respite.  Thus it is that they put in their forty hours before they head back to the grind of it all.

Office workers know the power of respite through coffee breaks.  Teachers know the power of respite through recesses.  Sport teams know the power of the timeout.  All of us know the power of the nap.  Even the shows that we watch on television understand the power of taking a moment away from the action to help viewers focus on the upcoming action . . . thus commercials.  Even society is beginning to understand the power and need for respite.

There are respite businesses . . . especially for those taking care of elderly parents or loved one with disabilities.  These businesses come to the home and provide relief to the caretaker by spending a few hours taking care of the parent or loved one, while giving the actual caretaker a few hours of relief and time away.  

In the world of work respite comes in many forms . . . there are days off, holidays, vacation.  All are meant to give the workers time off to rest and rejuvenate. 

So it should be with our faith.

Coming to worship on Sunday morning is a good way to start the practice of “respite for the soul”.  Sunday worship is a break from the normal and regular tasks of our lives.  It allows us the opportunity to drop what we are doing and to go and focus on something else . . . in this case, God and Jesus and our faith.  It provides us rest . . . a sermon is always a good time for a quick five-minute power nap.  But most of all it allows us time away from the busyness of our lives.  I would encourage everyone to get into the habit of coming to worship on Sunday mornings to find some respite for the soul.

Yet, at the same time, I would tell you that that is not enough when it comes to giving rest to the soul.  We all need more. 

How many times in the past week have you said to yourself, I need a break?  Or maybe you said that it was time for a vacation . . . or that you just needed to get away.  How many times this past week have you yearned for a nap, but instead powered on with the tasks before you?  How many times did you catch yourself getting frustrated with someone you love wishing that maybe they would go away for a while?  How many times in the past week have you just wished that you could be by yourself . . . to read a book, to listen to some music, to go for a walk?  If this is happening to you then the Spirit is talking to you . . . telling you that you need some respite for the soul.  That you need an interval of rest and relief.

Jesus said, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” 

As the followers of Jesus we would do good to heed his words.  Jesus knows what he is talking about . . . the soul needs respite.  The soul needs respite if it is going to effectively live up to the demands of living life in the way that God has blessed us . . . if it is going to be effective in the ministries placed upon us . . . and, if we are going to survive in such a way that we fulfill God’s will for each of us.  We, the followers of Jesus, need those times of rest and relief.  Yes, there is much work to be done, but that work cannot be done if we are exhausted, frustrated, and angry because we are tired.

The challenge is to develop a discipline of respite.  True, we start with worship on Sunday mornings . . . which is also a gift we can give to others by inviting them to join us in worship each week.  But there needs to be more.  Begin to practice giving yourselves the gift of respite in your own lives away from the church on Sunday morning.  Find a quiet place in your homes to pause, reflect, pray, and find rest.  Find a place in yourself where you can go and take a deep breath to find rest.  Take a few moments to read . . . the Bible or some other book that takes you away for a few moments.  Close your eyes and allow yourselves a moment of rest. 

The bottom line is that we cannot live our lives in the busyness of this work without taking the time to move to a quiet place to find rest.  To live our lives in such a way is to dishonor the gift of life given to us by God.  Jesus calls us to pause, find a quiet place, and to spend it in rest.  And, it doesn’t hurt to bring Jesus along with you.  Jesus understood the power of respite for the soul . . . so should we.  Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

“The Answer to Unanswered Prayer” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

Text:  2 Corinthians 12:2-10

But now that we’re at it, I may as well bring up the matter of visions and revelations that God gave me. For instance, I know a man who, fourteen years ago, was seized by Christ and swept in ecstasy to the heights of heaven. I really don’t know if this took place in the body or out of it; only God knows. I also know that this man was hijacked into paradise—again, whether in or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. There he heard the unspeakable spoken, but was forbidden to tell what he heard. This is the man I want to talk about. But about myself, I’m not saying another word apart from the humiliations.

If I had a mind to brag a little, I could probably do it without looking ridiculous, and I’d still be speaking plain truth all the way. But I’ll spare you. I don’t want anyone imagining me as anything other than the fool you’d encounter if you saw me on the street or heard me talk.

 Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.

My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad

Quote:  “…most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of the people around you.”—Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith
“The Answer to Unanswered Prayer”

Are any of you familiar with the cartoon strip “Cathy”?  It was released in 1976 and ran through 2010.  Cathy is the creation of Cathy Guisewite, and, according to Wikipedia, “features a young woman who struggles with the four basic guilt groups:  food, love, family, and work.”

What I remember is that about this time every year Cathy would enter a women’s clothing store, select a bathing suit, stand before a mirror and gasp; “horrors” she’d say.  What she had been hiding behind loose clothing wasn’t very pretty, but she could live with the denial until spring, when she grabbed a bathing suit and stood before a mirror.  Mirrors don’t lie.

I want to talk about denial for a minute.  Denial is a defense mechanism.  If you're in denial, you're trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that's happening in your life. The bright side of denial is that it gives us a little time to adjust to a challenging situation.  The dark side of denial is that it prevents us from dealing with painful or stressful issues that remind us that we are vulnerable and also require action. 

 Cathy didn’t want to do the work of wearing a bikini well but she wanted the results of wearing a bikini well.  Her dilemma was this—if she didn’t have a bathing suit she missed out on all of the summer fun at the pool and the beach.  If she DID suit up, well, she wasn’t perfect.  How did Cathy resolve her dilemma?  Most of the time she’d hand the bathing suit back to the clerk and then make a promise to her self to lose ten pounds by next spring…so she could have a life.

This past week was a little painful for Central Christian Church.  We invited someone from our national church organization to look through our statistics and tell us what she saw. 
She held a mirror up to us, and we were sad.

Our median age is 70 years old.

We average 33 persons in worship.

Our congregational membership is about 69 persons.

Only fifty percent of our budget is raised through pledges.  A congregation should be receiving 67% of their income from pledges.

Our sanctuary can hold up to 150 persons, which means we only use 20% of this room on Sunday mornings, but heat and cool 100%.  We could easily live in half of the upstairs, but we live, and heat, and cool 100% of the upstairs—the YMCA rents our basement.

When she asked, “What ministries do you have?”  We couldn’t list very many.  Disciple Women are talking about disbanding, and so is the Men’s group.  We have three senior high youth attending church camp this summer.  We still do Community Service but the list of service organizations we help is smaller. Our Moderator, Kelli Maxwell, has a plan for a community garden and for our congregation to get out of the building and get to know our neighborhood and community, but they haven’t quite taken off yet. 

And the list goes on….

Like Cathy, standing before a mirror with a flabby body dressed in a bikini, well, we gasped “horrors!”  We are so small and so old, and our incredibly lovely but large building feels like a moo- moo. 

The conclusion we jumped to?  If we could just find that magic cure and get more people in here—especially younger people—then we could have a life.  We could have a large worship service and a children’s program.  And then we moved to problem solving such as create and distribute more fliers and visit the pastors of other churches that are successful and find out what they are doing to attract more and younger people.  Because if we were just bigger and younger we could have a life, correct?

Here’s the question, “Is the gospel life best lived out by younger persons?  Is the gospel life best lived out by large churches?  Do buildings create the gospel life?”

You know what the gospel life is, don’t you?  I like the way Douglas John Hall defines gospel in his book Waiting for Gospel, “the Spirit of the LORD is upon me (us)…to bring the good news to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, preach deliverance to captives, bring recovery of sight to the blind and set at liberty all that are bruised.  Gospel is not a set of beliefs, it is an event.  Gospel is not something we do, it is something done unto us. “ The same Spirit that moved over chaos and created the universe moves over you, and me; us.  It is seismic.  It transforms people into doers of justice, sources of mercy, people of prayer, dreamers, and visionaries—CHRIST! 

I like the way the prophet Ezekiel describes gospel in the OLD TESTAMENT, Chapter 36:26---“26 I'll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I'll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that's God-willed, not self-willed. 27 I'll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands.”

Again I ask you—do we have to be young church to experience the gospel?  Do we have to be a large church—with a youth group and a choir—to be visited by the Holy Spirit of God—and yield to its direction?

You see, the problem isn’t that God has left the building.  The problem is that we are feeling less than; we are feeling sorry for ourselves.  We are measuring ourselves against our past and we are coming out losers.  And we won’t touch the building, we won’t become better stewards of what we have--- because we think our past is coming back; we think our youth and our numbers are coming back.  Isn’t that what we lift our hands to heaven for, praying…”God give us more people.  God give us children.  Give us all of those things that make us happy disciples.”   Which means our faith isn’t in the ever-present Spirit of God.  Our faith is in numbers, youth, and money…our memories, our past…our human assurances.
My husband serves the Joliet Christian Church.  When he met them seven years ago there were 14 persons in worship.  Now they often have 24 persons in worship.  They are so excited.  If they could have 33 persons in worship and 69 persons participating in the life of the church, like we do, well, they’d be huge.

When Jesus moved into the mission of God—loving, lifting, feeding, healing, suffering for and with…he chose 12 persons.  Twelve persons to love the world into a better place. 

Understand what I am saying?  We’ve got to get out from underneath our past and we’ve got to get out from underneath our miss-placed since of power.  We cannot control anything.  We cannot make our children be church with us but we’ve tried.  We experimented with paying young persons to be a part of us, but it didn’t work. Thank God it didn’t work! And all we are doing right now is throwing money at our general fund and renew thy church fund, and it’s not working either.  We can’t buy youth and we can’t buy participation.    We are vulnerable.
In our lesson from 2 Corinthians Paul says vulnerability is good.  It keeps us on our toes.  It keeps us looking at God, the source of real power, and keeps us from looking at ourselves, the source of human assurances.  He didn’t court vulnerability, however, so he says don’t give him credit for being a super holy person.

What he courted was a God who would take away his affliction, whatever it is.  Many scholars think Paul was burdened with epilepsy, but we really don’t know.  All we know is that something had him and he really, really didn’t want it.  So he begged God all of the time to take his pain away.   What he encountered instead was a God who told him, “I use your affliction to keep you close to me.  The answer to unanswered prayer is me. My grace is sufficient.”  THIS is grace; not grace as approval but grace as the very real presence of our very real God showing up in our very real, very imperfect lives.

Could that be true for us as church, perhaps, that God uses our current size and age to keep us close to God? If God threw more money and people at us, would that make us gospel people---people leaning in to hear who God is asking us to love and serve in this time and place in 2015---or would we experience the opposite—would we be satisfied, comfortable—and therefore full of ourselves?

A couple of years ago I was leading worship when I was overcome by something someone had said to me.  Her words “snuck in.”  A member of our church who has since left our fellowship said, “You were supposed to bring us children, young people.”  As I broke the bread and lifted the cup I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  I looked out at the congregation, the thirty or so gathered, and I thought to myself, “Dana, you are a failure as a pastor.”  But knowing I had to hold safe space for the congregation in worship and that I had to be very professional, I fought back the tears.  But the words were still there. My heart was so heavy…when these words came to me, “Dana, if you had managed to pack the house in the first year you were here, you would have thought that you had done that.”

We learn humility through humiliation.

Through his weakness, not his strength, Paul discovered that God is love and love shows up with a word that’s trustworthy.  The work of the church is to listen for God’s word offered through the mighty Holy Spirit of God; to discover what our purpose is today in the larger purpose of God’s restoring the creation.  Yesterday it was worship and Sunday School and youth groups and fellowship groups.  Today it is, well, have we asked?  It doesn’t take money, or a young heart, or a building, or a large worship service, or a coffee fellowship hour to ask God what our purpose is—it takes a sincere heart.

Sincerity with God, I have learned, is the result of running out of me—so I could run INTO God.  It’s only when we truly realize that we have no power that we reach out to who does have power—and do what God wants, not what we want.  Sincerity is hard work—it takes a very disciplined heart to hear the word of God.  God speaks softly, and quickly; God speaks through earthly messengers and dreams.
What the Apostle Paul wants to know is if we are up to the task…will we trade telling God what we want for asking God what God wants…will we trade denial for reality…will we let go of our past for God’s company in the present?  Will we be open to gospel?

Prayer:  Amazing God, as the church calendar moves from Easter to Pentecost, the season when we celebrate the Spirit-fueled faith community, help us to move from self-pity to empowerment—we are not small in your eyes, or old, or poor—we are yours—you have your eye on us and our neighborhood—your Spirit is bearing down—wondering—if we’ll ask you what we can do you for you?  Gracious God, what can we do for you? Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Billings Central Christian Church on May 24, 2015.)