August 28, 2016

“That’s My Seat”

Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

While I was attending seminary, I was invited to be in the wedding of a friend from college. She was a really good friend of mine, so I was happy to attend, but our group of friends had long dispersed so I wasn’t sure who I would see when I got there.

 

The ceremony was beautiful, and I enjoyed my part. That being said, one of my greatest anxieties about weddings stretched my patience at the reception: assigned seating. I make friends easily, but something about assigned seats at receptions gives me anxiety.

 

The closest connection at my table was a girl I barely talked to in college. I badly wanted to sit with our other mutual friends, but they were at different tables. God help me if I sat in someone else’s seat.

 

At that table, I was a guest, so it would be rude for me to tell others, “Nope, this is my preferred place to sit. You can sit elsewhere.” At that point in time, the place I belonged wasn’t where I wanted to be, but it was where I was asked to be.

 

The same is true in church, and I’m not talking about telling visitors in church, “you’re in my seat.” Don’t do that, of course. I’m talking metaphorically about the places Jesus asks us to go that are, well, uncomfortable and sometimes a little awkward.

 

But that’s the problem with Jesus – messing up our desire to be comfortable creatures of habit. It’s pretty natural to feel like the places and roles we pick are ours. I will be starting school again tomorrow, and I bet you that whatever seat I pick that first class will be my seat for the remainder of the semester, barring someone getting to it before me. When I was in elementary school, I remember wanting to be bathroom monitor or line leader and having to share that position to another kid. It was a day-ruiner when I realized it wasn’t my turn.

 

Jesus is telling those around him that it isn’t good to covet someone else’s place. One of the ten commandments is not coveting your neighbor’s property, so it isn’t a stretch to assume Jesus is using his rabbinic knowledge to expound on that definition.

 

So what is he saying here in the story of the wedding? In short, watch yourself when you start looking to be the center of attention. Instead, it is better to sit in the lowest place and get noticed that way.

 

But we all know that this nugget of wisdom has boundaries. Jesus could just as easily have followed it up with, “but don’t be a martyr about it.” Nothing worse than someone doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The point remains the same: whatever you do, do it with a servant’s heart. People who genuinely care about the wellbeing of others will be happy at the most valued part of the table as well as the least valued part. The idea is we are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, so giving up our prized place isn’t a burden. Let God, the greatest host, decide where you belong.

 

I think the issue is pretty endemic in society. We are taught to do the best we can in school and life so we get jobs and friends and romantic partners that put us in the upper crust of society. When you think about it, though, being impressive has nothing to do with how blessed we are. Happiness found in having more stuff is flighting. Happiness in loving God has depth.

 

What’s funny to me about this passage is it is a two-parter. No one gets off easy. As Jesus is talking about coveted seats and letting the host decide who goes where, most hosts would think, “yeah, my party, my rules.” So what does Jesus do? He turns to the host of the party and says: “Don’t invite people who you already like. Invite those who need dinner.”

 

I’ll be honest – my spiritual gift is parties. Y’all know I like food, but I also really like parties and helping people connect. Still trying to figure out how to do that pastorally. But this turns my love of connecting my friends to my other friends on its head. What if they aren’t like me?

 

It’s hard to understand the deeper lesson Jesus is telling us in those last verses. Does he mean we should literally invite strangers and the poor to our parties instead of friends and family? Is he being metaphorical in saying that we need to expand who we talk to so we make new friends who we owe nothing and who owe us nothing? Is it a mixture of those?

 

According to the Jewish Annotated NT, Luke is assuming a wealthy audience, so he is specifically talking to people who have no clue what poverty is like. We more likely do, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn from what Jesus is saying here. If you need practice serving those who don’t have the means to repay you, invite the youth and college students of the church over for dinner. It’s hard mastering more than mac n cheese.

 

If I had to guess, Jesus is putting a spin on being careful about seeing ourselves as being too good for service. We work so hard to feel important to people we like and who we want to like us, but it isn’t an act of service and love of friends if our dinners for them are about showing them up. Need a modern parable?: How many moms have done some crazy Pinterest stuff for their kids’ parties? Is it for the kids or the other moms?

 

We are people who are called to always be looking for ways to serve God. Serving God is usually not glamorous or gets us the best press. During the floods this week, cameras were trained on celebrities and politicians handing out food, which is nice for bringing attention to the area, but I noticed none of them got dirty. A couple of miles away, people like you and me were slogging through the muck of unspeakable things trying to save whatever they could. Not many cameras were trained on them, but God’s eyes were.

 

What about all the people who work day in and day out trying to feed refugees in these huge camps in Europe? We hear nothing of them. Of all the churches, civic groups, activists, and people who are trying to do the right thing, they so rarely get airtime. Even if they do, it lasts just a day or two.

 

Take your seat at the lowest part of the table. Eat among strangers like yourself. When we take on God’s calling in our lives, we serve a risen Lord, who really understood that, even when we party, we always serve.

August 21, 2016

“Doing Good in a 24/7 Life”

 

The room is sweltering. The air is saturated with the breath of all those who had come to see Jesus – the traveling rabbi from the Galilee. He causes a ruckus wherever he goes, but people find him to be a great teacher. As he preaches, this woman makes her way to him. He stops his teaching, looking at her. From the back of the room, the synagogue teacher could not tell what Jesus’ expression was.  All he sees is that the woman is healed.

 

“Who is that? How dare she! This is a holy day – a holy place – and she has disrupted what we came here for: to act like we are listening to Torah before lunch at Auntie’s house. How dare he stop the service for this nonsense! That’s not why we are here. Couldn’t she come later? Auntie hates when we’re late. Ugh, we will never get back on track. Hey Jesus, we came here to learn something!”

 

This leader had been working all week too doing synagogue duties. He was tired. And having a guest rabbi had to be sweet since he wouldn’t have to speak. But now new guy here is messing it all up! They didn’t want a healing service. Yes, healing is good, but now? How would you feel if, during communion, someone wanted to show you their messed up surgery toe and you couldn’t go up for some bread? You’d be mad, right?

 

It’s so easy to wrap up this story with a nice little bow. Lady is hurting and needs help. Jesus helps. Synagogue leader, wanting to be the expert on when someone can be healed and annoyed his synagogue will become a freakshow, gets mad. Jesus thinks, “here’s a chance to teach you a lesson, bub,” and proceeds to fuss at him.

 

Or is that what Jesus was thinking at all? To an audience of people all dragged down by their daily lives, who were likely just as annoyed as the synagogue leader that the sermon they wanted they had to wait for, maybe this moment needed to be a teaching moment. Maybe Jesus was like, “what’s most important here during the holy hour of the week?”

 

Luke doesn’t mention anything about someone else speaking up. When the synagogue leader protests, Jesus says, “Hypocrites!” which is plural, if you didn’t notice. So, either Jesus can’t count or he knows that the synagogue leader is not alone in his thoughts.

 

Many others saw the same nuisance, the same disruption. “There is a time and place for healing, and worship is not it. Isn’t that why we give money to the synagogue? So someone else can deal with this? When we meet God and God says, ‘How have you loved me?” we can respond with “Ten denarii a week is how much I love you. You’re welcome.”

 

We’re busy! We can’t do good all the time. We have jobs. It’s really hard selling used chariots in this economy. And my kids always want to see the gladiators. What about date night? We can’t tend to the lepers on date night – they’ll totally kill the mood.

 

Jesus says the poor are always with us, so what good is doing good if we don’t get any time off? Why bother if, even when we should have “our” time, we are faced with people who are so relentless about being healed? Or, I don’t have time or money, so I don’t have anything to offer. Sick people need so much effort. I’m too busy to help them.

 

But…what if we did anyway? What if we decided that we could afford to carve out a little time to help? What if we decided we could sacrifice one activity, one hobby, one hour to try to help? What if we realized that people who are sick, or poor, or whose homes weren’t as good as our homes are actually a lot like us?

 

What if we realized the angry, bitter person with terminal illness would just love someone to watch The Bachelor with them? What if that person we think spends money on cigarettes instead of food is actually hanging out at a gas station hoping someone would just offer them someone to talk to while they eat a leftover sandwich? What if we spent five minutes with a homeless person to realize we both like the blues? What if we held on to those memories so the next time something horrible happens in the world, we have a face and a name to put with it and care more about it?

 

It’s a lot easier for me to want to donate to the Louisiana floods because I just saw that state. I saw people with lives and problems like mine who just want someone to care about them – even if it is really inconvenient.

 

Doing good, when life is busiest and our bank account is stretched, is when God appreciates it the most. When no eyes are on you but your own and maybe the one needing help. When you give an offering to God far more than you ever have – not to be noticed by anyone but God and you. That is what good, truly good, living is, and we shouldn’t need Jesus to call us hypocrites to know when we aren’t doing that.

 

Christ wants to heal the afflictions that ail you, because He knows that you can be his hands and feet right now. I urge you to give more fully to the church, because we do need people who give money so we can help others. If you haven’t noticed, our accounts are dwindling and we could use help. We don’t spend frivolously so we can redirect funds for ministry. If you are hurting about Louisiana, the link to donate to disaster response is on the screen and on Facebook. But most of all, when life is busiest, I ask you keep a lookout for people who really need a smile, a kind word, or maybe something more. They have the same image of God in them that you have. Share yours and you will see theirs. And you may just heal them a little in the process.

August 7, 2016

“Faith is Keeping Your Lamp Lit”

(prior to sermon, a clip from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was shown, where Elrond of Rivendale is speaking to Gandalf)

I tend to wince a little before reading the news of the day. I never know what event or speech or whatever will bring down my faith in humanity just a little bit more. We are barraged with negative images and new reasons to fear something. Elrond of Rivendale voices something I think many people either outwardly or inwardly fear or believe: men, as in humanity, is prone to weakness, and we fear each other and ourselves and have no way to overcome our biggest problems.

It is a problem that has been building for years. When we as a society do not have a common enemy, we turn on each other. We see it everywhere: amongst friends, strangers, people we see on TV. Even in church, when things aren’t going our way, we direct our anger on somebody.

While I think that problem could lead us in a multitude of directions, the one that seems to be at the bottom of it is faith. Faith in ourselves, faith in each other, faith in God. In the movie, they were to have faith in Frodo, and the way they showed that faith was by doing whatever they could to keep the armies of Dark Lord Sauron and Saruman busy while Frodo took the ring to Mt. Doom. It’s a long masterpiece of literature and cinema, but it does come to a satisfying, hero-wins-the-day end, which kind of goes against how many of us currently feel.

When confronted with this feeling of a lose-lose reality, we start looking for others to change things for us. We look for this person or that person to bring it all around. Oftentimes, these people we appoint to be our saviors are set up for failure, because even the smartest and most talented cannot do it all themselves. They need other people.

Faith to move everybody takes a certain relationship agreement between everyone involved; however, when things don’t immediately start going our way, we turn on our leaders. We try to get rid of them. Then, if that doesn’t work, we turn on the institutions behind those people – deeming them incompetent or unable to fix our problems.

The common problem we all face is, when something is not going our way, we pick up our stuff and leave. Happens all the time – jobs, church, relationships, etc. We see something we think is better and we walk away. I’m not talking about legitimate reasons like abuse. I’m talking about the tendency for people to look at what we don’t like and just say, “I don’t care anymore, I quit” I see it happening more and more.

It seems, to me, Elrond is right. Our weakness, our impatience, and our sense of my-way-or-the-highway leaves us incapable of handling our problems ourselves. That is why we need God.

I’m not saying that God is some kind of imaginary character for our own convenience, but in the sense that we must recognize that there is another force or being that formed the world that we live in and did it under perfect circumstances that we continually distort. The problem is, God gave us free will to turn away from the transformational relationship freely offered to us.

God wants us to be in relationship with us, because God needs us yet won’t force us to believe or participate in a faith community. But we know from Scripture and our own faith that allowing God to work in us and use us can have some pretty astounding effects. In the case of our lesson today, we see an example of someone who decided to believe in God even in the face of impossible odds.

A little background first: The writer of Hebrews is reminding the people of his flock that life will be tough for them as Christian believers in pagan Rome. They were monotheists at a time that it was really unpopular, and the emperor was not happy with dissension in his city. So the author is saying, “hey, this place seems impossible and beyond our ability to change anything. So let us look to times when God was faithful to our ancestors.” Those ancestors were Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham is often referred to as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His story is found in Genesis, and it details how he and his wife Sarah were called by God to create a new nation by having a child. One problem – they’re old, really old. So old the author even says they may as well be dead, a part I omitted from the reading because I didn’t want you to laugh. But it is am important detail.

By faith, the writer says, Abraham and Sarah were able to conceive children, and those children multiplied. A seemingly unknown couple doing something as normal as having children, under extraordinary circumstances, became the bearers of a whole nation. What the writer is saying is God can and will do incredible things through those people who keep their faith alive.

So, we are left asking, “What is faith today for us?” If we are so bleak, what kind of faith can I have that will make any impact? The answer to that comes from today’s lectionary text in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 12, verses 35-40:

“ Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit. Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door.  Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them. Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn.  But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.””

Keep your lamps lit. Be ready. Stay alert. What makes us faithful people is having faith that God still works in the world – a world deeply divided. And I’m not sure we believe that.

There are plenty of people out there who will, subtly or explicitly, tell you that your faith is silly or stupid.  You know the people I’m talking about – always seeing the downside and never willing to try anything new. The kind of people who are ready to pack up their stuff and give up whenever things don’t go their way. Even in churches we have people who don’t want the church to grow because it will upset their way of doing things.

These are the people that have let their lamp burn out. They have no faith in God’s methods to enact change or those people God chooses to enact change. They think they know better than God, so they lose their faith in God.

I hurt when I meet people who have no light left. For some of them, it is due to real pain in their past or present, and for others, it’s because they never learned how to be a part of a community where not everyone is the same. Our job is to, over time, help them find their light again. It’s tempting to, in the face of their anger or pessimism, to fuss back and get angry too, but I assure you, there is no place where Jesus says, “take the log out of your eye and beat ‘em with it.” No, he said “turn the other cheek.” It’s hard to let someone get away with beating you down, but it’s through the giving of ourselves that we can offer space for someone to heal and light their lamp again.

God needs us to be lamp people. We are to always be ready for when God decides to make an appearance. That means finding more and more people who can light their lamps for the rest of the world. It means helping folks from not letting their light burn out.

Do you want to be a faithful person? Do you want to be a lamp lighter? Call up folks you know need some hope and tell them that you want to hear them out. Bring them to church. For that matter, I hear y’all talk about folks who don’t come enough. I bet a lamp lighter phone call could be just what they need. What we want is a community of faith who calls upon, pushes, and supports each other to always be growing in love of God.

July 24, 2016

“What Makes a Christian?”

I want to start with a question: what makes a person a Christian?

Christian is an identity – much like where we are from, who our family is, what we do, what we like, etc. Identity is important, because it defines who we are to the rest of the world. The first form of identity we get is our name.

I’ll speak from experience: It’s hard having an uncommon name. Growing up with the last name Chrisohon, people often mispronounced it, misspelled it, or just bumbled around it until I rescued them. I finally decided to do a little apologetics and started saying, “It’s Greek,” which I’m very proud of that heritage. Then I added Greek-ish when I realized my grandfather botched it to make it easier to say… he didn’t succeed.
While talking about that with my friend, he asked, “how do you know you’re Greek?” “See my feet? With that much hair, either I’m Greek or a hobbit.”

Identity matters a lot to us, and knowing we are a part of something bigger than ourselves is one of the fundamental human experiences.

We are here in church today because either we decided or someone decided for us that we should have the identity of Christian. But the word “Christian,” has a lot of meanings to a lot of people. We are just as “Christian” as the Mennonites who work at the Country View Market. We are also as much Christian as tattooed hipsters in Nashville and Denver and Chicago. My buddy Eli came to seminary with ear gauges, punk style, and a ridiculously advanced knowledge on the meanings and theology of communion.

Through our history, the primary way of understanding what a Christian is is belief in the pathways set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in some form. After that, different groups take different approaches. There’s a lot of belief under that label, so it would be helpful to know where to begin to understand what Christian means when you walk into a church like ours on a given Sunday.

Today, churches use a couple of methods for establishing a rough bedrock of what we mean when we say we are Christian: creeds and doctrine.
“Pastor Nick, you forgot the BIBLE.” I didn’t. The Bible is a big book that has gone through years of translation. Some think all translations are exact, whereas others, like myself, think the nuances of the writers gets lost when we don’t study the text. Doctrine and creeds are where others have done some thinking for us in distilling basic concepts from the Bible.

I think creeds are helpful in trying to make sense of what makes a Christian at our core. In a previous draft of this sermon, I bucked the idea of explaining the creed and instead walked through Wesley’s rejection of creeds in favor of a transformative understanding of what makes us Christian, and then I planned to talk about some inspirational Christian leaders like Mother Teresa, MLK, and C.S. Lewis That’s all still very true – no matter what you “believe” about Jesus, if your heart is full of dark, angry emotions, you are likely in need of transformation in Christ – but it is good to note how important the creeds are.

I decided that I needed to do some homework and found a sermon by a pastor in California that did a teaching sermon on the Nicene Creed. He highlights two important details that I will share today. Given not everyone likes the teach-y thing, and I try to keep my sermons around 12 minutes, I will encourage you to research and dissect the Nicene Creed further in Sunday School or Bible Study. I am happy to teach it, as well. Today will just be a quick glance.

First, some background: The Creed was written during the Council of Nicea in 325 and was later edited in the First Council of Constantinople in 381. It has been edited, re-edited, unaffirmed, and re-affirmed numerous times. It articulates some of our most foundational, and often least considered, beliefs about God.

The sermon I read begins by noting that we, collectively as Christians, suffer from an amnesia of belief. Very few read and study the Bible with the attention to detail it deserves. Much of our belief is as informed by popular, secular sources as it is by theological study, if not more.

Answering that amnesia begins with humbly recognizing we are probably wrong about at least one thing we believe, and then by taking our spiritual education seriously.

Knowing and substantiating what we believe offers us protection in an ever more secular world. I won’t say that our world is anti-religion, although a certain vocal sect is. By and large, most people are ok with “live and let live,” but a lax attitude toward knowledge and a growing anti-intellectualism stymy our growth in personal piety. What makes a Christian a Christian needs a little bit of structure so we have common ground on which to speak – even if we disagree about it.

So let’s take a look at two, important details that make studying the Nicene Creed worthwhile:

First, the opening line has a subtle but powerful difference from the more popular Apostles Creed that we usually recite. The first word in Greek is “pistoumen,” from which we get the translation “We believe.” We. We is important, because Christians for millennia have known that a person cannot claim Christianity as their own; they must be welcomed into a community of faith. Faith by one’s self usually ends up either dead or turned deeply, and dangerously, inward. By naming that “we believe,” we recognize we are accountable to everyone else who believes, too. There is vulnerability in claiming our creeds and being baptized into the faith.

In God’s plan for the church, God knew that we would not agree on everything. The UMC is no different. We are deeply divided on matters that have great importance to our common life. No matter what, though, if we claim this creed we put ourselves in league with others who worship Christ as the only begotten Son of God, who died, was resurrected, and sits with God as we prepare for the life to come. That’s a big statement.

Secondly, I want to highlight, as the original did, the meaning and depth of the word “believe.” Today, we take belief very lightly. One can think or “believe” one thing and do the exact opposite, sometimes without consequence. Here, the word has a binding element to it. You could equate it to trusting or having committed faith in something. You cannot say “I believe” or “We believe” and turn around and do something antithetical to it. What you say you believe points to how you will live.

To say that you believe that we are a part of one church, a part of God’s kingdom, and that Christ will come in victory means that you better be living by Christ’s teachings. As heavy as that sounds, it actually brings me great comfort. Every choice I make has meaning, even if I never see it. For all my faults and misgivings, I believe in One who will come in glory. I don’t have to be one of those people that angrily gets in the face of those who are not like me – I simply must live as an agent of change, hope, and justice, and I will please my God. Because I am part of a bigger picture of ‘we.’ Because I gave up my life to God and refused to live with spiritual amnesia, even though I was a Christian worship leader. I needed more, and I have it.

Like my original sermon said, Wesley was hesitant with creeds as proof of faith or as a qualifier for what made one a Christian. I think that is right. Ultimately, God wants to work in our hearts and lives in ways that bring about the kingdom of heaven to earth. I don’t think saying the right things or believing the right things puts us in God’s favor. I think how we love is what does that.

Read your Bible, learn about our history and tradition, and be transformed by our life together.

Bless you all, now and in the world to come. Amen and amen.