Sunday, March 19, 2017

enjoyLENT: Wise Joy

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March 19, 2017 - Third Sunday in Lent
Ecclesiastes 9:7-18 

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the spouse whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life, and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege works against it. 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.”
17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
    than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
    but one bungler destroys much good.

Sermon: enjoyLENT: Wise Joy

A boat docked in a tiny Thai village. An American tourist complimented the local fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.
“Not very long,” answered the fisherman.
“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.

The fisherman explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.
The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a nap with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life…”
The American interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the fisherman.

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Bangkok, Singapore, or even Hong Kong! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the fisherman.
“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.
“And after that?”
“Afterwards? Well my friend, that’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the American, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?” asked the fisherman.

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your grandchildren, catch a few fish, take a nap with your wife, and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

You may have heard this parable before. It reveals to us the inherent wisdom and joy to be found in simplicity. It’s the same message the book of Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth in the Hebrew, its true name) is trying to convey.

Life is fleeing. The effects of time and hardship happen to us all. But enjoyment – living with an indwelling of joy in all circumstances – is God’s gift to us. Those deemed wise and powerful in this world are often the most foolish; the poor, like our Thai fisherman, possess a wisdom the world tends to overlook or dismiss.

This book is often dismissed in the same way: it comes across as inherently pessimistic (“all is vanity!”) or something to dust off only for funerals (“for everything there is a season, and a time for ever matter under heaven.”). It names the uncomfortable realities of life and death, presents confusing contradictions to us, and certainly does not seem to exude joy.

Well, at least not joy in a simplistic understanding of it: the stark realism of these words doesn’t conjure up warm fuzzy feelings for us. But these words do, if we’re brave enough to sit with them, show us the path of joy.

Elsa Tamez explains this best, writing, “The book of Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes has become timely again today, when horizons are closing in and the present becomes a hard master, demanding sacrifices and suppressing dreams…we see Qoheleth’s sayings as rays of light, shining through the cracks in a dark, depressing room.”[1]

This book offers us a brilliant gift, if we’re patient enough to recognize it: that gift is joy rooted in wisdom. And that wisdom is rooted in one word, well known by our humble fisherman, a word that has the potential to radically transform our faith and our worldview, especially in this season of Lent: enough.

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.  Enjoy life in loving community…whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might.

We have enough. We are enough. God is enough.

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to be enough? Or your spouse, or your closest friend, or your children, or even your enemy?

In a world that constantly pressures us to do more, be more, buy more, achieve more, we find true joy in the wisdom of enough.

Now, perhaps it’s important to address a rather tricky part of the wisdom this book offers us: that phrase, “God has long ago approved what you do.”

This doesn’t mean I get to steal your cup of coffee because God knows it brings me joy and approves of my action. Though its wisdom is rooted in simplicity, nothing in Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, is simplistic. The word used for “approved” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to talk about God approving sacrifices, offerings, sabbath, and other acts of righteousness. And so this approval is rooted in covenant with God and one another, woven through with faithfulness. (I can’t steal your coffee, or treat you as less than human, and claim God approves of it.)

What I can do is know that I am, flaws, finitude and all, completely whole through my Creator. When we know we are enough, and that God is enough, an incredible joy comes from such wisdom. We can cherish what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life.[2]” It’s joy that enables us to make our fleeting moments count, especially in the face of opposition, indifference and tyranny.

That’s the curious thing about simplicity: claiming that we have enough enables us to do more than we ever thought possible. To be people like Sophie Scholl[3] (whose name means ‘wisdom’), a twenty-one year old college student in Munich in 1942. She, her brother, their friends, and their professor secretly produced and distributed pamphlets called The White Rose, blatantly naming the evil of the Nazi regime.

They were eventually caught, arrested, and at their trial, Sophie, the voice of wisdom, had the courage to speak out.

The judge could not understand how such nice, educated German young adults could be “corrupted” into speaking out on behalf of Jews and against the government. True wisdom is often seen as foolishness to the powerful.

Sophie surprised all who were present by responding, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare to express themselves as we did.” Later in the proceedings, she said to the judge: “You know the war is lost. Why don't you have the courage to face it?”  

Sophie and the others were sentenced to death. Witnesses there that day wrote of her interaction with her parents, their final goodbye. She was calm and clear-eyed, and when her mother offered her candy, she smiled, delighting in it, and said, “Gladly! After all I haven’t had any lunch.”

It’s incredible to think of a person in such circumstances finding gladness and joy in something as simple as a piece of candy, and bringing comfort to her mother in that moment. But wise Sophie did, because she knew that the work of her hands, her resistance to tyranny, was enough.

If we claim a spirituality of enough, joyfully spending our days with wisdom and not foolishly wasting them, we can do so much good in this world. We can be set free from the tyranny of more, and set others free in the process.

You are enough.
You have enough.
God is enough.
Enjoy this one wild and precious life.

[1]Elsa Tamez. When the Horizons Close, p 4.
[2] Mary Oliver. The Summer Day

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.