Monthly Archives: February 2017

Grateful

A Sermon for 12 February 2017

A reading from Philippians 1:3-11. Listen for God’s word to us.

“I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

If you were not here Wednesday night this week, then you missed a fun-filled evening of Bible Trivia. It was the TuTus verses The Chosen Ones – just to see if our Wednesday night adults have learned anything from three years of me facilitating them. I’m happy to report: they got all the answers right (with a little hint or two along the way on the most obscure questions!). After it all was over, I went home to fix my cup of bedtime tea. I was having mixed emotions that night, what with a long week or two of moving boxes out of the office, the care needs that have arisen, and my having a final sermon yet to write in the morning. Gratefully, the tab on the tea bag reminded: “This life is a gift.” . . . This life is a gift, isn’t it? This life, right here today where we stand, how we are, with whom we are surrounded in this very moment. What a gift! . . . I truly hope we all can join in gratitude for the amazing gift of this life – even if it takes a little tea tab reminder.

This life –our life together these past three years – is a gift. It has been a tremendous gift to me. . . . I’m going to do my best not to tear up all over ya’ll today, as I try to express to you how incredibly grateful I am to God and to you for the privilege it has been for me to be your interim pastor. . . . The professional life of ministry isn’t always easy. Most any pastor can tell you that. Lots will site the late night meetings, the wide range of skills needed and how quickly we must shift from using one to the next, the unpredictability of demands upon our emotions and soul and time. I respond to the question a bit differently — shocking, I know, that I would approach anything differently from the rest! For me, ministry has been the toughest when people have expected me to be – or at least to act like – something that I am not. I am not a boy preacher – I think that much is obvious! I get bored with doing things the way they’ve always been done just because they’ve always been done that way – especially if that way is no longer bearing any fruit! I don’t want to just go through the motions; I want to be challenged to stretch a little and to give a little bit more so that God has a new chance to get in – it’s part of why I love interim ministry. And I’m not finished – rather, God’s not yet finished with growing me more deeply into the calm, compassionate, trusting disciple I hope someday to be. This all is me – at least a part of it – and it hasn’t always been entirely welcomed everywhere I’ve been in my twenty years of ministry. And then I arrived here. While there may have been some initial sniffing each other out; from my perspective, all I have experienced from you has been acceptance. Acceptance of who I am how I am, which I believe has allowed me the space just to be so that the fruits of the Spirit God wants the world to know through the crazy combination that is me have been able to be harvested. . . . Acceptance is an incredible gift of this congregation. You cannot forget that – and you cannot reserve that just for a pastor or even just for one another. Acceptance of others for who they are – knowing that that will give the space for God to work through that person for the benefit of others – is a gift this congregation can utilize as you continue to move into ministry with those beyond these sanctuary walls. I speak as one who has benefitted from experiencing it here: acceptance is a gift at which you already excel.

Being open is another. These might go hand in hand, but it bears note. Being open is a mark of mature faith and I have seen it so often in you. For as much as some of you insist that you don’t like change, I have seen you remain open. You’ve been open to new ideas – like learning about the Enneagram as a tool for better self and other-understanding. And hearing about the ways we must shift to thrive as a church in the 21st Century. You’ve been open to trying new things – which you started already in your 2010 New Beginning. Things like starting some of those 21st Century shifts to know your neighbors’ needs and organize yourself in ways that set people free for ministry and not just coming here to church but being church out there in the world each day. Some of you have been open to new experiences like contemplative retreats, even at places like Benedictine monasteries! You’ve been open to worshipping in different ways – or at least experimenting with things like the Taizé service some of us attended at Downtown Presbyterian Church, and even liturgical dance that led us when we attended worship at the Episcopal Cathedral. You’ve been open to singing new songs here in worship, and including Confessions of Faith beyond the traditional Apostles’ Creed. You’ve been open to new, more inclusive ways of being Presbyterians together who know each of you has a ministry to carry out – not just the ordained clergy and session. You have been open to taking up your own ministry of pastoral care to homebound members, and teaching the youth brought here from the neighborhood, and even giving a little bit more of your money to ensure this building remains a place that reflects your deep gratitude for a space in this world where you are accepted and can grow in your love for God and each other. . . . I have seen you be more open than you even may have realized you were being and that alone gives me such a sense of hope for the years of ministry that lie ahead for this congregation. Being open is a gift you already possess that will allow the Spirt of God to carry you where it will into a future filled with amazing faithfulness.

Care resides here too. True, genuine, active care. Lots of congregations think they are really caring. Then when you scratch the surface you learn things like a whole bunch of people don’t even know each other’s names. Or no one seems to have the time to sit with someone as they wait for the doctor to come tell the news. Or the person in charge of arranging meals for church members in need – if the church even has such a ministry – that person always is angry because no one ever will answer the phone when they call to ask about bringing a meal to someone else. For those whose needs have been known, I’ve never heard of such responses among you. For those open to the care of this congregation, ya’ll seem to shower people with God’s love through visits and cards and of course, yummy meals. You genuinely care about one another. And when you find yourselves being pulled in a zillion different directions by the pressures of life, you stop. Re-assess. And figure out new ways to continue to express your care for one another. . . . It’s no small thing that in a world that too often seems void of basic respect for one another, you possess the gift of caring. Caring that the lonely are not alone; caring that those who grieve know God’s Presence through your own; caring that when life gets tough, helping hands are ready. I’ve seen it again and again and I know it for myself because I have experienced your care when I had to go through that shoulder repair surgery; and now too as my mother is battling cancer. You all possess the gift of active caring that really does make an important difference in other’s lives. In that care, which you put into action, the love of God is experienced through you. Such enacted care is a tremendous gift of this congregation that is so desperately needed throughout the Hermitage community and throughout the world.

The Apostle Paul wrote eloquent words of gratitude to the communities of Christians he knew through ministry. We heard such sentiments in the second scripture reading today. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he wrote. “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5). He told the community of Christians from whom he was physically absent that he was confident “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6). And he should, in fact, believe such, he said. Because together they all share in God’s grace. Together they all have sought to live the grace of God wherever they might be. . . . I don’t have an eloquent epistle to leave with you today. Just a card – one enough for every one of you! That I want you to take home from me to you. Hang it on your refrigerator, put it in your bible or daily devotional book, place it wherever you will see it each day not as a reminder of me. But as a reminder of you. Of who you are as a congregation. Of the amazing gifts you have and freely give for the work of God to be accomplished through you all. I mean it! It’s my last Sunday sermon among you so you better be listening! You possess the life-changing gifts of accepting others. Of being open. Of caring – actively that God’s love will be experienced. These are your ABCs! The gifts for which I give thanks. The gifts I pray you will continue to find new ways to use for the benefit of those beyond these sanctuary walls! . . . Thanks be to you! Praise be to God!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

“Being Light”

A Sermon for 5 February 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:13-20. Listen for God’s word to us in this continuation of Jesus’ infamous Sermon on the Mount. Listen.

“’You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Three years ago on my first Sunday as your interim pastor, the lectionary brought us together around this text; the very same part of Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount. . . . You may not remember it. But on that Sunday, I pulled out this prop (a container of salt) – I even told you I’d give you some at the sanctuary exit to keep in your pocket as a little reminder. . . . In a riveting sermon entitled “Salty Light,” I told you how difficult the winter of 2014 was around this country. Several states got hit hard with mounds of snow until many of those very same states – New York, Illinois, and other Northeastern and Midwestern spots – were in the middle of a salt crisis. They had put down so much salt to keep their roads safe and the snow melting for life to go on as usual, that salt supplies were dwindling away. If you’ve never lived in a state where snow covers the land from November til sometime around May, then it may be a bit difficult to understand the crisis of trying to live in winter without any salt! . . . Jesus knew the importance of salt – how treacherous life would be without it! One translation of Matthew 5:13 puts Jesus’ words this way: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be the salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). . . . Jesus preached about the importance of salt because he knew it is essential. Not just for keeping life moving along smoothly in the dead of winter, but even more so for bringing out the flavors of this world – things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Salt long has been a part of our faith ancestor’s life together. The traditional Jewish Seder includes a bowl of salt water on the table. Salt was to be a part of the sacrifices commanded by God. Leviticus tells of salt to be added with grain offerings (Lev. 2:13). And flesh offerings spoken of in Numbers remind of the covenant of salt – the sign of a perpetual covenant – the everlasting promise of God (Num. 18:19). Salt symbolizes a bond with the LORD God that stands forever. Salt was mixed with the people’s offerings as a pleasing reminder to them all. Not to mention that before refrigeration, salt was key for life – bringing the blood out of meat to ensure it was preserved; so, in turn, the people would be able to survive. O yes: Jesus knew, salt is essential to physical life even as it was a sign to God’s people of their everlasting spiritual life with their Maker.

Perhaps to a crowd that was tired of dreary winter days that can drag on and on to weary your soul as your body yearns for just a little bit of sunshine, Jesus puts the words of Matthew 5’s next verse this way. According to the same translation quoted earlier, Jesus says: “You’re here to be the light, bringing out the God-colors in the world” (Matthew 5:14, Ibid.). Allowing the best of God’s Spirit that is in each of us to be seen. . . . In this light metaphor, Jesus was referencing the covenant God cut with Abraham. That his descendants, as numerous as the stars of the vast night sky, would be the light to all nations. . . . Israel constantly was reminded of being light. We heard it in Isaiah 58. That beautiful promise that if the people would serve the interests of those in need, instead of just their own self-focused ways; then “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly . . . if you remove the yoke from among you” – in other words, that which weighs one another down . . . “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday.” You again shall become the light you were intended to be. As the prophet writes, “you shall be called the repairer of the breach (or that which is separated); the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:8, 9b, 10, 12b). You shall be those who create communities of peace – that’s what the light of the world does as it shines in the darkest of places.

Three years ago in my first sermon among you as your interim pastor, I told you that Jesus’ words aren’t just for those up on that mountain. His words are for you. For me. For every one of us baptized into his mission as followers of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. . . . We are the salt of the earth. We are light for the world! . . . We watch the news. We know a little salt certainly is needed now. The seasoning in our families and communities and nations that will bring out the God-flavors of this earth: a little love. A little joy. A little peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The blessed fruits of the Spirit! A true taste of godliness. . . . And light? Dark places of life yet exist – seem to be growing more each day. Someone, and it might as well be us, needs to shine a little so the vibrant colors of this world can be seen. . . . I heard the other day that there are 9,000 children in Davidson County who are on a waiting list for food through Second Harvest Food Bank. They truly need the food they get through public schools – and the donated extras received for weekends and holiday breaks. When you bring a pack of snacks to be boxed up for Tulip Grove Elementary students, you’re being salt. You’re bringing light. . . . When you give a case of water for the homeless who are served through Room in the Inn, or for a family gathering at Hermitage Memorial Gardens to receive visitors prior to a service celebrating their loved one’s life; the God-flavors of generosity are tasted. The colors of compassionate care are seen. . . . When you stand at the sanctuary door to genuinely welcome someone who hasn’t dared entered here before, when you show kindness to the stranger at the grocery store. Maybe even, wherever you might be, you practice patience with a struggling mother whose hands are full with two fussy little ones. That’s being salt. That’s being light. That’s taking seriously Christ’s command for something beautiful to be taken in in this world. For something gorgeous to be seen. God’s ways.

About us, the church; one archbishop says: “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members” (William Temple as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1; Charles James Cook, p. 336). . . . The only group who gathers together to grow in giving ourselves away. . . . Since my first sermon as your interim pastor three years ago, I’ve seen that in you. The ways you continue to give yourself away. We certainly have had our times together of worshipping and learning and serving for the gracious love of God to be experienced among us. But we’ve kept to it always – at least I hope we have – so that we can get up from these pews at the end of Sunday worship to head out into the world to be salt. To be light. To give of time and energy and efforts for a homebound person in Hermitage to get a meal once a day. To be joyful and filled with hope among our neighbors even in the midst of health hardships, divided worldviews, and terrible difficulties around this globe. To be those able to speak a word of comfort among colleagues and cultivate inner peace for our calm to ripple out to soothe the troubled with whom we come in contact. Not for ourselves alone, but for all in this world who need to taste. For any who need to see. That’s what Jesus told us. It’s what we’ve been up to together these past three years and what we shall continue to be about wherever our paths shall lead . . . because we are salt for the earth. We are light for the world. . . . May it ever be so.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)