Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Three Rules for Christian Communication

The events of the last twenty-four hours has me thinking about the ways Christians engage in the world: particularly the way we speak. In difficult situations, what should we say? How should we interact? What role does social media play in all of this?

I realize that the questions I ask myself when participating in church business meetings apply beyond the church setting. As Christians, we are called to speak truth in love, but how can we do that? How can we talk in ways that honor Paul's words in Romans 12:2: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind?"

When deciding what to say--or if to speak at all--here are three guiding principles.
  • 1. Is it true? Is the thing I am saying true (as opposed to "truthy")? Can I back up my speech with facts, actions, deeply-held beliefs? If there is legitimate question about the facts behind my speech (even when that speech is opinion speech), it ought not be spoken. I give my statements credibility, just like credible statements reflect positively on me. When I speak things that prove to be untrue, I damage my trustworthiness and I reflect poorly on God and God's church. Snopes is your friend! Every time you spread a rumor that isn't true, truth is degraded.
  • 2. Is it kind? Notice the question is not, "Is it nice?." Niceness is pleasantness, and it can lead to conflict-avoidance. We don't always need to be pleasant, and conflict--intentionally used--can lead to growth. Kindness is a more theological way of being. It reflects that you are made in the image of God, just as I am. I can speak difficult truths kindly, with a reverence for who you are and Whose you are.
  • 3. Is it helpful? We all know people with no filter: the kind of folk who say, "Well, that's just who I am: I say what's on my mind." And not every thought--true, though it might be--is helpful. One of the perils of social media is assuming that everybody wants to know everything you think about everything. That's just not true. Most of your thoughts should stay in your head! Judging helpfulness leads to speech that is directed towards a goal. It need not be a lofty goal; you may just think I need a laugh. And what you are saying may be true! But not all true speech is helpful, at least in every instance. If you see me having just stubbed my toe, that's probably not the time to remind me that I need to lose a few pounds. And speaking with people in deep grief is not the best time to tell people you think they are wrong.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it has helped me discern what to say, and when.

What about you? What questions do you ask yourself before speaking as a Christian? What guidelines do you use?

Monday, November 17, 2014

November 16 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here).
Matthew 25:14-30
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Well, we are in the second part of a little two week series in which we are talking about the end of time, which may sound like a strange thing to talk about, but popular culture is clearly infatuated with it. And last week we talked about the silliness of the idea that God would leave people behind. God’s promise to us is presence, being present with us. And we talked a little bit about what to do in the meantime, which is to say that we are not supposed to idly wait.
You should know that I do not like to wait. There are few things I despise more than waiting in line. In the grocery store I am constantly eyeing the next register to monitor how fast it is moving. I just don’t wait well. And to be honest, I don’t know of a lot of people who do. One of the things about the world these days is that it seems to move faster than ever, and work can follow you everywhere, so there’s always an email to return, a Facebook status to update, a text to send, a phone call to make. And so when the power goes out, or my phone runs out of juice, I just about don’t know what to do. It can make a person crazy, having to wait like that, and yet, of course, this is what we are called to do as Christians. We believe that one day, Christ will dry every tear, stop every hurt, right every wrong; we’re just waiting for it to happen. But we aren’t separate from that hope, because as we wait, we are to do the work of love. We are to serve God and serve others, so that Christ can break into and breathe hope into even the most hopeless situations, as God works through us.
So it is that in this morning’s scripture lesson, which shows up in the Gospel of Matthew just after the one we read last week, Jesus talks to us about that waiting, about what we do in the meantime, which in the final analysis is all the time we’ve got.
Like he does so often, instead of just telling us, he shares a parable, a story. He says, a wealthy man was headed out of town on a great journey, so he called his workers together—slaves, in the words of this ancient story—and says to them, I’m leaving. I need you to care for things while I am gone. And so he gives them a total of eight talents, which was a certain amount of money back then. To the worker he trusted the most, he gave five talents, to the next, two talents, and to the one he trusted the least, one, which is still a hefty sum of money. A talent, as best as we can tell, was an amount of money equal to the salary you’d earn from twenty years of working. So this isn’t a nickel and dime deal. This is the real thing. This is the kind of stuff you and I are entrusted with while we wait.
And the workers go about their lives, tending to the field, watching the man’s property, and eventually he comes back and calls the workers together and says, all right, I’m back, give me your report.
And the worker who received five talents says, “Master, I took the five talents you gave me and I have made five more.” Now, I think that’s a pretty nice return, 100%, and the wealthy man seems to agree, and he says, “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And the second worker comes and the same thing happens. “You gave me two talents and I made two more,” and the wealthy man says “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And then the last worker comes forward, sort of fearfully, sheepishly, and he says, “You know, I’ve seen what kind of guy you are. You harvest things you didn’t plant, you exceed the boundaries of your property line, so I figured the best thing to do would be to play it safe, to dig a hole, hide the whole thing in the ground, so at least you couldn’t get onto me for losing your money.”
And the wealthy man is enraged, and he says, “I see how it is. I see what you think I am. And if I really am that way, don’t you think you should have at least taken it to the bank to see what kind of interest you could get?” And he strips the guy of everything he has, takes away his title and his money and his responsibility and throws him out. Just tosses him out the gate.
I want to stop here and acknowledge that this is a difficult story. There are plenty of landmines within it that we need to contain, carefully, before we can get into the meat of the lesson of the story. First, this story has been used countless times as a way for well-dressed prosperity Gospel preachers to say, “give your money to the church and God will bless you financially.” And that’s not it at all. This is not a story about getting rich; notice that the wealthy man doesn’t give his slaves any of the money. He just gives them more responsibility.
I think there’s also something we need to say about how harsh this story is. You see, those of us in what we call the mainline tradition like to sometimes take the Bible and make it nice and cute and sweet. We like to knock the rough corners off of the Bible and sand it down until it resembles something nice and pretty, and that’s well and good until you realize that you’ve sanded it so finely and created a surface so shiny that when you look at it, you see your own reflection rather than God’s. So I think we need to acknowledge that this stuff is a little harsh, and kind of learn to live with it, because the message of God isn’t always easy. It is always loving, and it is always gracious, but it isn’t always easy.
I mean, I am sure it wouldn’t have been easy to have been the first worker, the one who was trusted with five talents. For one, that’s a hefty sum. That’s a lot of pressure. But it must have been absolutely terrifying to invest all of it. It’s not that he kept three in stable value funds and put two in domestic stocks. He put it all on the line, every bit.
In some ways, you know, I have to think that what the two workers did—the one with the five and the one with the two—I think that’s one of the most difficult things you can do. Not just the work of investing—though it was a lot of work—but making a decision to trust. To say, you know God has given me this. I intend to use it for the good of the kingdom. I’m not going to keep it as it is. I’m not going to live in fear. I’m going to use it. After all, isn’t the prayer of “use me, O God,” the most powerful prayer, the most ultimate desire of each of us? Isn’t that what we want more than anything else: to be seen as worthy in the eyes of God, to be used for God’s purposes, whatever that means for you?
I like that message. It’s difficult, but I like it, because, of course, one of the central messages of the whole Bible is this: do not fear. Do not fear. We know how the story is going to end, and maybe we have things we need to do in the meantime, but it’s not like we’re in the dark about whether God is going to win. God will triumph. All the pains of the world will go away: all the heartache, all the hurt, all the tears. This is the message of the Bible. Love wins.
And I’ve got to be honest. One of the reasons I like that message so much is that boy, do I need to hear it. Again and again and again. There is so much out there that wants to control us by fear, because fear is one of the most powerful forces in the whole world. It is tempting to give into it now and again, to say, you know, this is too scary. I am going to sit this one out. And when you think of it that way, well, I don’t know about you but I have a little sympathy for the third worker, the one who dug and buried and delivered to his boss 100% of what had been entrusted to him. Not only has he protected the man’s significant asset, but he’s also remarkably honest when the man asks him what he was thinking. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was . . . afraid.”
It is fear that drives him. Fear. And it is fear that keeps him from being used as an instrument of God, because he is afraid. And what a pity, to be given the opportunity to be used by God and then to just . . . pass!
I mean, this being a story about the nature of God, not just some fable about how to invest your money, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the first two workers double their investments! If I’ve learned anything through my time in ministry, it is that God will always use us when we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice: maybe not in the way we’d like, and in this case not with a financial reward but with more responsibility, which is not exactly what those of us who have lived long faithful lives are necessarily looking for as a reward! But God always rewards those who take seriously God’s promises, rewards those who trust. And lest you think that trust is something you either do or don’t, let’s be clear that one thing this story tells us is that we have to choose to trust. Not blindly, of course, but purposefully, because you don’t go off and invest five talents, what amounts to 100 years worth of income, without making the decision to trust.
And yet the third worker is so bound by fear that cannot not imagine the good that can be done in God’s kingdom with that kind of wealth. He’s so bound up that he can’t even see the value of what he’s been given, can’t even hear God’s voice calling him to reinvest, to constantly reinvest, to take what he has been given and use it for the glory of God.
It is fear the drives him, that sits in front of his face and blinds him to possibility, for, of course, fear is the enemy of imagination. This guy has forgotten that scripture tells us, again and again, that God is more powerful than our pain and our difficulty and that in the end, God will win. Maybe that win doesn’t look like you expected. Maybe it will enlarge your territory, give you new responsibility, pluck you up out of your comfort zone and deposit you in a place you barely recognize with people you don’t know so that you can make good on God’s investment in you.
In the end, the God who loves us will never leave us, and you can bury that if you like or you can take it to the bank, your choice.
I will end with this. Let’s bring this out of the stratosphere and set it down on the altar next to the cornucopia. I’d challenge anybody who doesn’t believe in miracles to sit down with me and review all that has happened in this congregation on this corner over the last twelve months. I was looking out last week at the young adults—all crammed in a pew in the middle of the sanctuary—and remembering only or two of them has been here longer than a year. That’s a miracle. You have been so successful in reaching out to new people in new ways that we’ve welcomed nearly fifty new people into membership this year, and now I’ve got to hire somebody to help keep up with our children and families. That’s a miracle. We’re reaching out to new people in new ways, including the fact that you’ve already fed 10,000 kids through Stop Hunger Now and raised enough money through the pumpkin patch to feed 22,732 more. That’s a miracle. But these miracles have not been pulled out of thin air. They have come about because you—those who have been here for decades and those of you who have been here for a few weeks—all of you have been willing to invest, to trust God, to dream dreams, to imagine what God might do.
And now that we’re seeing some return on our investment—God’s investment, really—we’ve got a choice. We can say, all right, this is great, but God is calling us to more because God always blesses faithfulness, because God always says yes to the prayer of “Use me, O God.”
Or we can say, eh, that’s good enough. This is just about all the growth and change I’m comfortable with, and besides, you never know what the Bishop’s going to do. Best to bury what we’ve got so at least we don’t have to worry about losing our hard-earned church.

“For to all those who have,” Jesus says, “more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
For the next two weeks we will be talking about the end of things, which may be a strange thing to talk about, but it is certainly a popular thing these days. Think for a moment about the word “apocalyptic.” What comes to mind? I think it is instructive that with a very few exceptions, it was not until humanity created the ability to annihilate itself with nuclear weapons that apocalyptic fiction rose to prominence as a genre. Think of classics like A Canticle for Leibowitz, or more modern works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You will certainly find apocalyptic themes in the Hunger Games books. And the end of things being a particularly compelling theme, there are more movies on this topic than I can count. In fact, let me show you these. You may not be able to see them, but later you can come see them in my office where they are prominently displayed. They are Bobbleheads of Michonne and Rick Grimes, two characters from one of my favorite television shows, the Walking Dead, which is a program centered on the idea of a zombie apocalypse.
You can’t get away from this kind of thing, and I get it; we live in a strange time technologically, culturally, religiously. If you’ve been in the church for decades you’ll note that the nature of the church is changing very quickly, shrinking in some places, losing much of what it has once been. So it is natural to gravitate to stories about the end of things, natural to look for guidance in the Bible about how this will all end. I think that’s a good thing. I wish people would look to the Bible when they made most of their decisions.
The problem is this. This focus on being left behind—the version of the end of things you read about in novels and see in movies—that version is not based in truth. It takes a few verses in what is a very large book and twists them to fit a system of belief that doesn’t match up with who Jesus was, who Jesus is. And sometimes it gets played as harmless entertainment, just a way to spend a couple of hours, but it is insidious, because it hides behind claims of being fiction while at the same time claiming to be Biblical. It claims to be Christian. And it really just isn’t.
For one thing, if you are newer to the faith, you may be surprised to know that this idea that people would be plucked up while others would be left behind to face supernatural forces—this is an idea that has really only existed as an idea for less than two hundred years. Jesus was around two thousand years ago, and he didn’t mention it. None of the Biblical writers mentioned it. Martin Luther never mentioned it. This idea stems from a misunderstanding of the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, and a small handful of verses throughout the New Testament.
So you should know that this stuff wasn’t even really an idea until it was dreamed up in the early eighteenth century by a couple of Puritan ministers named Increase and Cotton Mather whose other claim to fame  is that they are widely understood to have laid the groundwork that led to the Salem Witch trials. The word “rapture” simply does not exist in the Bible. And the book of Revelation, which so many people—including the people who wrote the popular Left Behind books—have turned into some sort of map of how the end of times is going to happen, that book isn’t a warning. It isn’t a map. It’s a love letter. It’s a book of worship. It is like Communion: a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It uses symbolism because we worship a God who is bigger than our literal language. Revelation is a reminder that God is with us always, that life can be difficult and bad, terrible things can happen, but that all the suffering, all the evil, all the problems of the world are no match for God. It’s not about God leaving us behind. It’s about God being with us always.
Now, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that a preacher ought to always show his or her work—you know, let me throw all these Greek words at you to show you how smart I am or whatever—but looking at the language this was written in is helpful, and the word we talk about sometimes in the church is parousia. Parousia. It means the coming of Christ to save us from all the difficult things in life, all the pain. And the Greek word parousia is most accurately translated as “presence.” Here we are focused on being Left Behind and the very word the Bible uses means Christ’s presence with us. That kind of misunderstanding would be ridiculously laughable if it weren’t real.
Christ will be present with us. You know, I may sometimes get to worrying about the state of things, but we are promised in scripture that this all ends well! One day, we read in scripture, Jesus will right every wrong, dry every tear, and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
So what I want to do with the rest of my time this morning is talk about the scripture that Anna read this morning and point out some things we can learn about the end of things. And then next week, we’ll talk about what God wants us to do while we wait.
In this morning’s scripture lesson, we find Jesus, and the authorities are onto him. He doesn’t have much time left, and so he launches into this long set of stories and teachings about how to be faithful. You know, in the months before my grandfather passed away, we knew it wouldn’t be long, so we started to gather more often for meals as an extended family, at these long tables because there are dozens of us, and we’d put Papaw at the head of the table and leave the other end open. And after dinner, my grandfather would sort of pat himself on the belly, and we knew he was done eating and it was time, so somebody would set up a video camera at the far end of the table and we’d ask him to remind us about stories we’d heard him tell—about growing up in coal country in Arkansas, about leaving his family as a child to find work, about his time in the War. And because he also knew he was nearing the end of his life, he wanted to share those stories with us, so that they would become a part of us. They weren’t just warnings, and they weren’t about how he was mad at us. They were stories he told us because he loved us, because when we saw him in those stories, and when we carried those stories with us, a part of who he was would remain with us.
And this is how I think it was with Jesus. The stories he tells can sound harsh—perhaps you have heard the one about cursing the poor old fig tree. But they aren’t about being upset with us any more than the end of things is about God leaving us once and for all, which of course it isn’t. They’re about love, about sharing a piece of himself with the disciples, and through scripture, with us. And so he tells the disciple a story.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took extra flasks of oil with them. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come to meet him!” And so they all got up and got their lamps ready, but the five that didn’t have extra oil saw their lamps going out. Those five had to go to the store—in the middle of the night, as if Walmart was around back then—and while they were gone, the bridegroom came. The half that were ready went to the wedding banquet. The half that weren’t missed the boat.
And he ends the story this way: keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I mean, it does sound a little ominous. I get why people think of this stuff as harsh. Keep awake. If you aren’t paying attention, you may miss the coming of Jesus. And, to be clear, it’s one of those mysteries of faith that we don’t understand, but we do believe we worship a God who will wipe every tear, to right every wrong. When we talk about the end of things, this is what we are talking about.
What gets me, though, is that there is this whole industry of religious broadcasting and Christian novels that either take the events of the day and try to hammer them into something that looks like the symbolism we see in the book of Revelation or they create a story out of symbols and make it sound like it is Christian theology, when the whole point of this story is that you can’t anticipate when Christ will break through! You can’t look to the stars or whatever. You can’t count the number of times a word appears in the Bible and figure it out. There’s no use looking for some sort of Bible code. Christ comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected times. When Jesus says you know neither the day nor the hour, he doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some time in September. He means that the business of trying to game the system is completely unscriptural. It’s wrong. It keeps you from faithfully following Jesus, from faithfully showing love all the time, not just in front of the judge or whatever.
There is this episode of the Simpsons I love—I wonder when the last time you had a pastor who quoted the Walking Dead and the Simpsons in the same sermon—but it is an episode called Homer the Heretic, in which Homer Simspon gets tired of being bored every week in church, which I know is something none of you struggle with. And so he creates his own religion based on his own personal tastes. And his daughter Lisa sees him walking in the back yard dressed like a monk, and she says, “Dad, why are you dedicating your life to blasphemy?” And Home looks at her reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. If I’m wrong, I’ll recant on my deathbed.”
It is silly, but how many people act like that, in one manner or another? How many people use Christian faith as a sort of last-ditch life-insurance policy, instead of actually living it? It takes the pressure off of us, for sure; it turns religion into something you can kind of just think in your mind, rather than doing the things that Jesus tells us to do: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, welcoming the stranger, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we believe that one day, there will be no more sickness, no more hunger, for Christ will break through and, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Yes, in the Communion liturgy, the congregation acknowledges that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” that this is the great mystery of faith, but this isn’t a threat; it’s a promise! It is a promise of hope, and love. It is the promise of presence.
And, sure, it can be difficult to wait. It can be difficult to say, here I have lived my whole life trying to be faithful and it hasn’t cured my sadness, hasn’t cured my pain, hasn’t cured the fact that I keep losing people I love. But the Christian faith is not about doing good so that you can be rewarded. If it were, Mother Teresa wouldn’t have experienced so much doubt. Martin Luther King wouldn’t have been martyred. Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified.
The Christian faith isn’t about avoiding pain. It is about hope, about Resurrection, about acknowledging that the worst thing is never the last thing, which means there is something greater and more powerful than pain. And, yes, following Christ is about waiting patiently, not idly, but patiently, and productively, for the promises of God to continue to born.
When you look at it that way, this business about being ready because you do not know the day or the hour—that’s not a threat. It’s a promise. Being ready isn’t about crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s in case Jesus shows up to check your papers. It’s about sharing love in the meantime. It’s about the meantime. For if you love, you will have love in abundance, enough to fill your flask and your lamp and maybe even enough to share. You won’t run out, because if you love, you will have love.

Now, next week, we’ll talk more about what that means, about how we wait. But, you know, in the meantime, keep sharing love. In the meantime, let us be the presence of Christ for others. Let us keep our lamps burning, for thanks be to God, this isn’t a story about scaring anybody into belief, but about shining light while we wait. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.