Sunday, February 26, 2017

Our Values: Support

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Cameron Presbyterian Church engaged in a value-forming exercise at our Annual Congregational Meeting, and determined four values that will guide us in 2017: compassion & caring, faith, serving and support. Each Sunday in February, I will focus on one of these values.

February 26, 2017
Ruth 1:8-22, 4:13-17 

8 Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
    and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them,
“Call me no longer Naomi,
    call me Mara [which means “Bitter”],
    for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
21 I went away full,
    but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
    when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
    and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed [which means “worshipper”]; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

 Sermon: “Our Values: Support”

The other night, I curled up with my chamomile tea and a novel, and began to unwind from the day in my favorite way. I’m reading a book called Ireland by Frank Delaney[1], and it is an inventive and incredible tale of that emerald isle. Like only happens with the best of books, I felt myself getting pulled in, as I read each paragraph with more speed than the last. Books are the best down time for me.

But, I’ll tell you a secret: we pastors don’t often get total down time. Though I was curled up with Fifi, tea and a book, a little part of my brain was doing what it does every week: ruminating on the coming text to preach on. And so, when I read a particular paragraph of my novel, I immediately stopped, wrote it down, and connected it with our Ruth story for today.
Here’s what was written, when describing an adventurous expedition by sea:

“We do well to remember dolphins. If a dolphin ails, then others come alongside and nudge him gently through the waters; because a dolphin must keep moving in order to keep breathing. We all have need of our dolphins alongside us from time to time.”

Now, I’ll be honest, I had no idea I’d be talking to you about dolphins today! But what a perfect description of our value of support: gently keeping one another moving so we can keep breathing. It’s easier said than done.

For Ruth, keeping her mother-in-law Naomi breathing after the loss of her son meant one word: clung. We hear that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, but not Ruth. Ruth clung to her. This Hebrew word is used rarely in the Old Testament, but nearly always it’s describing the way skin clings to bone. This is not holding hands; this is not a pat on the back; this is not an awkward half hug. No, Ruth clung to Naomi in her grief, like how our skin clings to our very bones, and she refused to let go.

Naomi, showing that common fear we have when we’re suffering (being a burden to others), told Ruth to go. Leave. Live her own life. But Ruth said no. She stayed with her, journeyed with her.

It’s a testament to the depths of Naomi’s grief that when she came to Bethlehem, sorrow had so etched its painful lines on her face that those who knew her best didn’t even recognize her. She was changed, not really able to keep breathing, and she named herself Bitter. But – and this really is the point of the whole story – she was not alone.

Ruth was her dolphin, nudging her, clinging to her, keeping her breathing. And then Boaz was their dolphin, feeding them, welcoming them, loving them. The women survived, and in this great fairy tale of the Bible, the same people who were shocked and didn’t recognize Naomi in her grief later gave her a new name: “blessed by God,” and named her grandchild “worshipper.”

We all need our dolphins, and you better believe Ruth needed Naomi just as much as Naomi needed her. That’s what makes life worth living: having someone, anyone, who needs our support.

Now, these past few weeks as I’ve preached on the values you chose for 2017 – compassion & caring, faith and service – I’ve usually ended those sermons somewhere along the lines of “now get out there and do something!” (We preachers don’t have that many new tricks, after all.)

But not today. Today, I’m not going to tell you all the ways you should be supporting each other. I’m not going to give you steps to cling to one another in times of sickness and sorrow.

Today, I simply want to say this, and for you to really hear it: you are so, so good at this. Churches four times our size try to create entire programs to replicate the sort of support our church organically gives, and it’s not the same. By the grace of God, this is your greatest gift as a church. You come to each other’s rescue. You cling to each other, like flesh clings to bones, and you don’t let go. Not when a scary diagnosis comes. Not when healing comes. Not when grief and sorrow come. Not when fear and loneliness come. Not when change and uncertainty come. You never let go.

Support isn’t just a value you put up on a white board at a meeting; support is who you are, with your every breath. I want us to own that. Celebrate it. Be grateful for this work of the Spirit among us.  So, let’s do that now: I invite you to turn to a neighbor for just a couple of minutes and share a time you have been supported by this church. Or if you prefer, you may also sit and quietly think to yourself about when you felt supported here.

A Time of Sharing

There are plenty of ways to think about our church in terms of who we’re not, and if we’re honest, it’s sometimes much easier to dwell on the negative and do that. This year, I don’t want you to define yourself by who you’re not. I want you to rejoice in who you are: a family who supports each other, clings to one another like skin to bones, and keeps each other breathing even into life eternal.

And if someone ever asks you what Cameron Presbyterian Church is all about, just make them curious and say: “With God’s help, we are each other’s dolphins.”  Amen.

[1] Delaney, Frank. Ireland: a novel. New York: Harper, 2008.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Our Values: Service

Cameron Presbyterian Church engaged in a value-forming exercise at our Annual Congregational Meeting, and determined four values that will guide us in 2017: compassion & caring, faith, serving and support. Each Sunday in February, I will focus on one of these values.
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February 19, 2017
Matthew 20:20-34 

20[Salome], the mother of the sons of Zebedee [James and John], came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “Y’all do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

Sermon: “Our Values: Service”

“Sons of thunder,” my boys were called by Jesus. That sounds about right. My eldest was named James, his little brother was John. As sometimes brothers close in age will do, they were always competing with one another. As children along the Sea of Galilee, they’d see who could gather the most seashells, or who could swim out the farthest (something I, their mother, was terrified by). Ah yes, I haven’t introduced myself yet, have I? I am Salome, follower of Jesus, wife of Zebedee, momma to those sons of thunder.

As they grew up, their sibling rivalry only became more intense. Instead of seashells, they would fish for ten hours at a time in their father’s business, and try to outdo each other with their catch. I tell you, it was exhausting watching those sunburned teenagers painstakingly count out each fish to determine who knew glory, and who knew defeat.

I didn’t mind a bit of healthy competition, but I always tried to keep my boys humble. This was especially important because of the sort of lifestyle we had: while many families in Bethsaida struggled to put food on the table, we had a thriving commercial fishing business. If you’ll forgive the indelicacy, I’ll just say it: we were rich. We worked hard for it, but still, my boys were afforded a social standing many kids didn’t get. I never wanted them to take what they had for granted, or worse, become arrogant about it.

But sometimes, their rivalry and privilege left them with a chip on their shoulder. After they left the fishing business to follow Jesus, I saw incredible growth in them. The humility and compassion of Jesus brought out those same qualities in them, but every now and then, their old habits bubbled to the surface. When once traveling with Jesus through Samaria to Jerusalem, we all sought a place to stay for the night. But the villagers, being Samaritans, knowing we were Jews, refused. I hated this sort of prejudice, but I knew you never fight hatred with hatred. Before I could calm them down, my indignant boys (who were not very used to sleeping rough) demanded that Jesus call down fire from heaven on those inhospitable Samaritans. What a thing to say! I was so embarrassed. Jesus just looked at them with the weariness of an exhausted father. “No way,” he said. And onward we went to the next village without a word.

But from that day on, Jesus nicknamed by boys the “Sons of Thunder” for their short fuses. It’s amusing to me how few people these days realize the incredible sense of humor our Lord and Savior has.

People also don’t realize that, as a mother, I rarely do things by accident. Matthew painted me as a desperate momma trying to get her boys a little extra glory by asking for James and John to sit at his right and left hands. I don’t suppose he ever considered the fact that this intelligent woman knew exactly what she was doing! I knew what Jesus would say to such a ridiculous request; I also knew it would teach my boys the lesson they needed, which coming from Jesus instead of their own momma, they might just take to heart.

You see, I’d noticed that old rivalry begin to creep up again, only my boys weren’t trying to outdo each other in seashells or fish, but in praise from Jesus and respect from the other disciples. They began to be a bit showy about their discipleship, and I knew that this was a dangerous thing. When your faith becomes a performance, your soul and the world suffers. I knew, like any mother does, that my boys had incredible potential; I also knew they needed to get their egos out of the way to get there.

So, I asked that question of Jesus: will you give them the glory they seek? Jesus, though, isn’t just funny. He’s also very smart. Rather than respond to me, he knew it was the boys who needed the lesson, so he said to them and not me, “Y’all don’t know what you’re asking.”

He went on to talk about the cup of his suffering, a cup he knew this discipleship life would require them to drink of, too. What he said next, I’ll never forget: it was my favorite sermon he ever preached, and I heard nearly all of them.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I watched something dawn in my boys’ eyes, and I was so very proud. Suddenly, life wasn’t about how many seashells they could gather, but about appreciating the beauty in each tiny one. Life wasn’t about catching the most fish for the glory, but about feeding as many people as they could. And life wasn’t about getting greatness by the world’s standards of ego, power and competition, but about showing greatness in serving the least of these.

Something changed in my sons of thunder that day: they were somehow softened by Jesus’ words. Sure, they still had their storms, and went through terrible suffering I, as their mother, can’t even speak about to you now. But they had a purpose, a centering value, a calling. And that calling was to be a servant, no matter the cost.

Now, I know I’m not your mother, but you can’t ever really take that mothering tendency away, and I feel like maybe you need to hear that powerful sermon of Jesus, too.

Maybe you’ve gotten too caught up in the rat race of power, ego and status, and made your faith play by those same misguided rules.

Or quite the opposite, maybe you’ve felt you’re too insignificant to do anything real or meaningful for Jesus.

Maybe you’re afraid of the cost of this servant discipleship on your comfortable way of living.

Or maybe you’re just too tired, or too worried, or too jaded, or too sad to feel like being a servant.

Let me, momma Salome, encourage you: if my sons of thunder can be servants for Jesus, so can you. I’ll give you a bit of (unrequested) motherly advice on how to start:

First, let go of who others think you are, or who you think you should be. You can only be a servant if you’re exactly yourself, no more and no less than who God made you to be. No one can serve in the way you can, and that’s a good thing!

Second, when faced with prejudice, hatred and fear (like my boys and those Samaritans who refused to take us in), breathe first. Then, breathe some more. Then, try to see them as human beings, who are so very afraid. Then, try to pray for them. Then, (and this really will take all you’ve got) try to love them. (This isn’t the same thing as being a doormat.) Only after all of these steps can you begin to create change in them and in you.

Third, pay very close attention to your motives for what you do. If, as a church, you’re trying to attract younger people, or be present in your community, or care for those who are suffering, be sure you have the right motives. Survival and money are poor motives; status and publicity are, too. Even warm fuzzy feelings can be. Our motive should always be sharing the love and grace of Jesus Christ through serving all; and if it’s anything else, it’s time to listen to this sermon of Jesus again.

Finally, just do something. You don’t need a vision statement to see the person on the side of the road crying out for help. You don’t need extensive training to reach out to someone with a different religious or cultural background from you and invite them to meet you for pie. You don’t need perfected theological ideas to share what Jesus and this community means to your life when someone asks you why you go to this church. You just need to act, invite, listen and share. If you trust Jesus to lead you, you have all the qualifications you need to serve.

And remember, Jesus showed us what service really is, in case we forget (and we will). It’s patiently putting my boys in line, and immediately after that, having mercy on two blind men, because he practiced what he preached.

May you know the greatness found in rejecting this world’s greatness.
May you know the power found in lifting up the powerless.
And may you know the incredible joy found in living a life of service, for the glory of God, and not your own.


Our Values: Faith

(Indiana Jones' leap of faith)

Cameron Presbyterian Church engaged in a value-forming exercise at our Annual Congregational Meeting, and determined four values that will guide us in 2017: compassion & caring, faith, serving and support. Each Sunday in February, I will focus on one of these values.

February 12, 2017
Hebrews 11, Selected Verses

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered God faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Sermon: “Our Values: Faith”
Hebrews 11, perhaps the greatest faith chapter in the Bible, rattles off many strong examples of faith: Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel. I’d like to add just one more to this list, a person whose faith inspires me: Indy.

That’s Indiana Jones, to be clear. (Just go with me here.) One of the most beautiful examples of faith I’ve come across is portrayed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Let me set the scene for you a bit: Indy is searching for the Holy Grail before the Nazis can get it (as you do), but they arrive at the hidden place at the same time, and one of them shoots his father (the fabulous Sean Connery). Now, Indy must find the grail quickly, as it’s healing power is the only thing to save his persnickety dad.

After making it through the requisite booby traps, Indy must take what is called the “leap of faith.” He sees a wide chasm before him, with rocky cliffs on each side and no visible way across. One for whom faith never seems to come easily, he closes his eyes (perhaps in prayer), takes a deep breath, and then opens them as he takes a step into the void. And then he plummets downward, and the movie ends. No, he doesn’t! His feet land on solid rock – a path across the chasm that wasn’t visible before. Astounded, he walks across it, and then, as an afterthought, tosses a handful of sand behind him to mark the way for his return.

What a beautiful definition for faith: trusting God enough to step into the void, believing the path will become clearer with each step, and then looking back on your journey, and marking the path home, so you can find your way back again.

So faith, we see, is not made with our words or our quietly held belief systems. Faith is made in our actions; that step into the unknown. James put it another way: faith without works is dead.

Which is why all of these wonderful heroes of our faith – Abraham, Sarah, Enoch, Abel, Noah, Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and Rahab – are named in Hebrews 11. These weren’t people who prayed one prayer to God and called it faith. These were people whose faith was much, much bigger than that; it led them to do incredible things:

Giving of themselves for God.
Pleasing God, not through perfection, but through trust.
Building a boat to remind the human race that grace is real.
Setting out on an unknown journey to an unknown place.
Having a family very late in the game, in order to bless every family.
Standing up to a violent ruler’s edict with a simple basket in a river.
Passing through the waters and not being overcome by them.
Receiving the enemy in peace and breaking the power of violence, to save your household.
And so many others: conquering kingdoms, administering justice, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fire, winning strength out of weakness.

Each of these faithful teach us that faith is not a cozy feeling, or a political pawn, or a source of showy pride, or a golden get-out-of-hell-free card.

Faith is the gift from God that leads us to courageous action.

So, when we say that faith is a value of our church, we can only truly mean that when we do something. Take that step into the unknown. Trust that God knows the way when we don’t. And then, look back on our life together and scatter holy sand to remind us of how far we’ve journeyed with our Creator.

When was the last time we did something really, truly courageous for God? That’s the key question our faith should prod us to ask over and over again.

Do we believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, come down to earth to redeem us all? If so, then how have we acted as kinsman-redeemer to someone in need, showing that we believe God’s grace is made real in our incarnate compassion to the wanderer?

Do we believe we are created in God’s image and named very good in God’s sight? If so, then how have we practiced relentless goodness towards others in the face of political vitriol and heightened tension?

Do we believe the Holy Spirit dwells within us, nudging our feet onto unknown paths, and trust there is a way forward? If so, then how have we committed time every day to praying, discerning and listening to that Spirit’s call on our life and our church?

Do we believe the Bible is God’s living word to us, meant to lead us to deeper understanding of our God, this world and ourselves? If so, how have we lifted these words off this page and put them into practice in our own community?

Do we believe, like Rahab did, that the Lord our God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below? If so, then how are we partnering with God in bringing salvation to this messy earth, caring for its creatures and environment and seeing God’s hand in all of it?

Faith is not simply saying we believe, though perhaps that is a first step. Faith is doing something about that belief. May we have the courage of Abel to show suffering never wins in the end; of Enoch to please God; of Noah to survive when the world feels like it’s ending; of Abraham to entertain the possibility that God might surprise us; of Moses’ mother to defy violence with wild hope; of a wandering people to believe there is such a thing as a promised land; of Rahab to refuse to play by the rules of age-old conflict and hatred; and may we have the courage of Indiana Jones to take a step even when we’re not sure we believe there is a way.

Thanks be to the God who gives us the gift of faith, to the Redeemer who placed faith in us complicated human beings, and still does, and to the Spirit who nudges us forward with a holy mixture of relentless trust and reckless hope. Amen.