Thursday, September 17, 2015

Whoever welcomes

A sermon on Mark 9:30-37

I was in Lubbock for a wedding in May and stayed at Ma’maw Nita’s house. Growing up one of my favorite things to do was to go visit my Ma’maw Nita. Ma’maw Nita is not my grandmother, she is a woman in the Lubbock, TX CP Church who took in my parents when they were struggling college kids and welcomed them as her own struggling college kids. The result is that I had three grandmothers as a child, and Ma’maw Nita is one of my favorite people in the world!
We would run into her house, not time for greetings or rituals of welcome. We made ourselves at home, grabbing snacks from the kitchen, playing games in the dining room, running up and down and all around her home like wild animals. It was AMAZING!
While I’ve always felt welcomed in her home, this time was different. This time I was an honored guest. A big deal was made over my presence there. I got my favorite foods and even slept in the bed with Ma’maw Nita instead of on the fold out sofa.
I know Ma’maw Nita has always loved and valued me, but this visit felt special, because she really acknowledged her pleasure of having me there. I was her honored guest.
In our scripture for today Jesus and his disciples are doing some traveling of their own, from Caesarea Philippi through Galilee to Capernaum. The trip takes them through various areas and they get some special time with Jesus without the crowds present. So Jesus takes this opportunity to share more in depth teaching with them. Specifically teaching about his suffering, death and resurrection.
This is not the first time Jesus has said these words, just a chapter back he spoke them to Peter who rebuked him for them. Why is this teaching so hard to hear? It might have something to do with what the disciples thought the Messiah SHOULD do. Jesus is the Messiah and the disciples have been raised to see the Messiah as a liberator, along the lines of Moses. A leader that will cry out in a loud voice “Let my people go!” Instead Jesus says again that he must suffer and die and to be honest I’m not sure the being raised part really even entered their minds until AFTER the resurrection occurred.
The disciples have inherited a certain view of what the Messiah would and should do and suffering and death are no part of it. Sometimes we can be blinded by our expectations. We think things should work one way and when they don’t we are confused and angered.
It’s like watching someone try to enter a door. They pull and pull and pull. They may curse and stomp and give up. But if they had only pushed it would have opened easily.
Jesus surprises the disciples with these words and they are so overwhelmed they don’t even ask why or how this could happen. They are stunned to silence.
Perhaps in an effort to overcome the awkwardness of the situation they begin to banter about with each other asking who is the greatest. I’m sure it started out simply enough. Perhaps with Peter claiming he had to be best because after all Jesus gave him a new name! Then John blurts out “I’m the disciple Jesus loves!” Maybe James piped up “I’m his brother! I must be the favorite.” Eventually this leads to an actual disagreement.
In the back of their minds there is still a picture of Jesus sitting on an earthly throne triumphant and they want to know who will be the right hand man. They let the politics of power get in the way of seeing true relationship with Christ.
This argument does not go unnoticed by Jesus. None of our pettiness goes unnoticed by Jesus. When they have arrived at a place of rest Jesus asks “What got you guys so riled up back there?” And again his words are met by silence.
It’s like when you were small and your Mom wanted to know what you were fighting about. You all know she knows, but no one wants to fess up.
Jesus tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus knew what was in their hearts, and he wanted to make it very clear to them that the kingdom of God looks nothing like an earthly kingdom! Jesus the Messiah surprises them in the savior his is. Jesus surprises us in the type of savior he is.
Jesus declares that they must be servants of all, which is a bit scary, but doable. Until Jesus qualifies who all really means.
Jesus gathers them around and picks up a child. Most of the disciples have probably not even noticed the child’s presence before this minute. Children were not favored as they are today. There was no children’s time during synagogue. Children were really not even to be seen at all. They were not seen as something to hold up, to faun over, to value. You didn’t become important to the society until you were a man or a woman, old enough to be educated and married.
Children didn’t hold the special stature they do in our country. So when Jesus picked up this kids I’m sure the disciples raised their eye brows. I’m guessing his words led them to drop their jaws as well.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who has sent me.”
For Jesus to hold up a child as an example of living in God’s kingdom, God’s household was shocking. To say that such a child was a stand-in for Jesus the Messiah himself was mind blowing!
Children were no higher than servants, maybe even less valued because they didn’t add to the productivity or wealth of a household. This is not some super sweet sugary moment of Jesus cuddling a baby. This is Jesus turning social norms on their head. This is Jesus taking those that were essentially invisible to society and giving them prominence and preference.
What does that look like in our world today? Who is it that is largely invisible in our culture, in our world?
The truth is, there are far too many who fit this category today. The elderly, in a society that worships youth they are often seen as of little value as their working years have ended. The homeless, who it is now illegal to help in some areas of our country. The immigrant family trying so hard to eek by while terrified that someone might trick them or fool them because they don’t know their way around this culture. The mentally ill who are so feared that people don’t see any way to help them other than incarceration or institutionalized.
I’m going to say something very unpopular right now, so brace yourselves. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were effective. They did what they set out to do.
We now live in fear. Fear of our neighbor. Fear of strangers. Fear of those who are honestly in need. Fear of ourselves. And this fear keeps people invisible or even worse, visible for the wrong reasons.
 We are so scared that we can’t hold real compassion for refugees because we think they must all be terrorists trying to infiltrate the West. We are so scared that we can’t celebrate a 14 year old boy making a clock on his own because his name is not John Smith. We are so scared that we keep ourselves locked up in our own homes seeking self-preservation over reaching out to those in need.
I’m guilty of it as well. Just Thursday morning I went out to my garage to get in my car and I saw a man, an African-American man, walking down my cul-de-sac in a baggy shirt and shorts. He didn’t walk quickly, he didn’t seem to be too concerned about what was going on. He was just walking. I tensed up and sat there with my phone in my hand wondering if I should go inside. The man looked up, smiled at me and waved and kept walking. He had ear buds in his ears and I realized then that he was just one of the men in the neighborhood taking his morning stroll.
So how do we follow the teachings of this messiah, this table turning, upside down Jesus?
I read a story this week about Ferenc Gyurcsany and his wife Klara. (Read article here)
Ferenc served as prime minister of Hungary from 2004 to 2009. Today, he leads the opposition in Parliament. He says that his house, in a leafy, upscale neighborhood of Budapest, is big enough to share. And for the past few weeks, he and his wife, Klara Dobrev, have been doing just that — welcoming migrants into their home to spend what he calls "one normal night."
While the Hungarian government has been hostile toward the thousands of migrants trying to cross the country, citizens like Gyurcsany have come forth to help them.
"It grabs a couple of hours from our life, but what's that compared to the fate of these people?" says Gyurcsany. "It's nothing."
He says helping in this way has given him an incomparable emotional lift — more than anything he's done in several years.
Gyurcsany and Dobrev, who have five children, moved their 6-month-old baby into their own bedroom to offer more space for migrant families. They're working with a charity group that helps identify particularly exhausted migrants to host.
Dobrev believes the most important thing she and her husband do is simply to treat people like human beings.
"Sometimes I have the feeling that it's not only the food or the possibility to use the bathroom or wash their hair," says Dobrev. "But it's the gesture itself, because these people have received so few human gestures in the past few months."
Hungary is cracking down on migrants and those who assist them, by making entering the country illegally a criminal offense. Gyurcsany says his own family held a meeting to discuss whether they would continue bringing migrants into their home in the worsening climate.
Their decision was unanimous.
"There is a rule of life, and there is a rule of the government of Hungary. And if these two rules are conflicting," he says, "we have to choose the rule of life."
Choosing the rule of life sounds a lot like choosing the way of Christ. Welcoming, even those with the least ability to offer anything in return, is truly loving your neighbor as yourself. Treating other’s as an honored guest is a way of honoring Christ’s presence in our lives.
Each of us has had a point in our lives where we felt less then. Where we were the outsider. We’ve had moments of being invisible. But someone showed us some small kindness. Someone treated us like honored guests. Someone opened their hands and hearts and possibly even home to us.
It’s not an easy message to hear. It’s not an easy message to follow. But if we do choose to follow this radical Messiah, our lives will be radically blessed. If we follow this Jesus the world will be blessed by even more Ma’maw Nita’s. Amen and amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Heartbreak Mark 8

Friends, my heart is broken this week. As we have had the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks juxtaposed with the Syrian refugee crisis. My mind has been unable to focus, my heart has cried out time and again to God. And honestly, I’m not finished listening to God’s answer.
I’ve sought out words to bring to you today, words to bring to myself, but could find nothing inside of my own head or heart to share. What I did find however comes from the head and heart of another minister, Rev. Dr. David Lose. These words brought me a bit of comfort and hope and I’d like to share them with you this morning.

Rev. Dr. David Lose Sermon on Mark 8

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Everyone is equal in God's eyes

Sermon on James 2:1-17

James 2:1-17
I have a friend who moved up north a few years ago. I’ll call her Tina. Tina is far away from her family and friends and has struggled to find a way to get to know other people. Specifically people she might like to date.
Tina’s a good southern girl who’s always dreamed of the husband, kids, and whole thing, although in her vision he might be a stay at home dad. In her 30’s Tina is struggling to meet people who have similar plans and thoughts about the future that she is actually finds interesting enough for a second date.
Tina turned to the world of online dating at the advice of a friend, or family member and began a series of less than stellar dates. Each man quickly showed at least one or two if not 20 undesirable traits and were dismissed from the list of possible suitors. Fed up with the whole thing, but too practical to waste the money she’d spent, she sent out her information to a group of guys that she thought where “out of her league.” She called them “pretty boys” who would never look twice at her profile.
Tina had judged herself, and the males in this group too harshly. Less than a week later one of these “too good for her guys” had contacted her. They went out on a couple of dates and are really enjoying one another’s company.
Sometimes when we judge others instantly we miss out on great opportunities. Some times when we judge ourselves too quickly we keep opportunities at bay.
Our scripture lesson this morning talks about a group of Christians in worship. This may seem an odd thing to compare to online dating, but bear with me here.
The writer of James has taught about pure religion; that is a religion that cares for widows and orphans. The point of this is a religion that cares for those who are less fortunate. Jesus himself said that we must become servants to the least of these. What the writer saw happening in this particular congregation was behavior of blatant favoritism.
When a new person entered the assembly, or church, they were sized up immediately. Are they wealthy? Could they be upstanding citizens? Will they improve our standing in society or our bottom line?
With these questions in their hearts the people would offer seats of privilege to those who seemed well off. However, if someone came in who looked poor, someone who looked somehow less than the reception they received was completely different.
These individuals were seated wherever they could be closely watched. It is almost as if they see this poor person as nothing more than a transient who might dare to hit up church members for money after service concludes.
These two receptions show that this congregation has its heart in the wrong place. Because everybody is equal in God’s eyes!
Favoritism is something that the scriptures are against from the get go. Throughout the good word we are told to care for widows and orphans, for the alien, the strangers in our midst. Jesus time and again preached and showed love to and for the poor.
And yet. And yet the followers of Christ have far too often ignored or worse, denigrated the poor, as if being poor was the worst sin one could commit.
There has long been a sense of disrespect for the poor, which is odd considering the elevated status Jesus often gave the poor. God who gives to all, and gives generously, raises the lowly. God promises the poor the very kingdom of God if they are rich in faith and love.
Often our faith is played out in acts of mercy for the poor, which is wonderful, but at times it is easier to do so for the distant poor and not those who we might actually have to smell or touch.
While at one point in the history of the church the poorest of the poor, beggars were seen as reflections of Christ, that changed during the middle Ages. As more and more people found themselves in desperate straits the church began seeking to teach skills and trades to lead to self-reliance. Those that did not, or could not learn new skills and continued to beg were seen as to lazy or unworthy to receive charity. The distinction between the poor and the working poor was drawn clearly in the church. The working poor were worthy of help, but others were just too lazy to pull themselves up by their boot straps.
The writer of James calls the church to a higher standard. James reminds the people, and us that Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. To find worth in the fellow creations of God. To once again see God’s image in even the poorest of faces. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes.
When we show partiality we show that in our hearts, gold weights more than faith or love. Favoritism based on wealth or status does not show God’s love. In fact the polar opposite of favoritism is mercy.
There was a church in downtown small town USA. It was the big Steeple church in town, where everyone wore suits and ties, where the ladies still wore hats Easter morning. Services were beginning and the elders had started to shut the doors. A young man slipped in. His smell hit the sanctuary before he did. He hadn’t bathed in a while and his reeked of cigarettes and body odor. His hair was long and unkempt. He had holes in his shoes and dirt on his face. As he walked up the center isle of the church people began getting nervous. They spread out so that pews that would have sat 2 or three more suddenly looked too full. They did not make eye contact but you could hear a slight buzzing as he passed each row.
Finally he reached the front and sat down on the floor in front of the front pew. The minister was taken aback and had no idea what to do. The service was at a standstill.
In the fourth row, Gospel side, an elderly man stood up, grabbed his cane and began making his way to the front. You could feel the tension release. This man was an elder of the church. He had been there forever. He was third generation Cumberland Presbyterian. He would know how to handle this vagabond.
The pastor nodded his head in approval and waved to the organist to signal that she could begin playing the opening hymn. When the old man reached the front of the room he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. He leaned forward, and lowered himself onto the ground next to the young man. They sat together the rest of the service, praying together, singing together, and joining in communion with one another. They sat there as children of God, as equals in God’s eyes. And in their actions the gospel was preached and received.
As the writer of James points out, faith without works is dead. What good is it to see someone in need and say go on your way, be blessed without offering some help? Or as Jesus put it in Mark 8:36 “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Everyone is equal in the eyes of God. The poor, the rich, the elevated, the downtrodden. All are equal, all are loved. And as children of God, heirs to the kingdom, members of the body of Christ we are called to view people with the eyes of Christ our Lord.
When we exhibit favoritism, when we leave out words of justice and hope for the poor, we are leaving out huge parts of the word of God. Did you know that in the first three Gospels, Matt Mark and Luke, there are one out of 10 verses that deal with the poor, in Luke its closer to one in seven. If we were to remove those words from the scriptures we would indeed have a “wholly” Bible, one missing the psalms, prophets, and many of those precious words in red.
How can we live lovingly and justly? By reaching out. By offering love and support. We do this in numerous ways here at Christ Church. In fact I want to share one with you right now. For the past month we have been collecting underwear and other hygiene items for downtown rescue mission. This has not been a huge sacrifice for most of us. A few dollars here and there. But this week those items were delivered and this is the thank you note we received.
“Thank You so much for gracious donation. God’s timing is always impeccable.
We had just put the undergarments on our need list when you came thru the door with the Blessing. Thank you so much for being sensitive to the drawing of the Spirit and being His hands and feet.
May God Bless you as much as you have been a blessing to us!!
Thru Him,
A simple thing like new underwear can and will make a difference for someone in need. Generosity is giving and sharing what you have with others. When we are generous with fellow human begins we are sharing love with those created in God’s image. We honor God with this love and generosity.
Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves. We must learn to value the Jesus in us and the Jesus in others. We cannot sell ourselves short, but at the same time must not put others in their place.
Today we celebrate Holy Communion, one of the sacraments of our church, and perhaps the most leveling of all of the things we do.
Each of us is invited to the table, no matter our net worth, no matter our cleanliness, no matter our condition. We are all invited to come, share, taste and see that the Lord is good. One bread, one body. Because everyone is equal in God’s eyes.