Sunday, July 9, 2006

Click here to read Mark 6:7-13.

A book called the Material World came out a few years ago. It is a collection of photographs taken all over the world. In each picture, a families stand before the place where they live. Some of the homes are shining mansions, some are huts and shacks that are clearly unstable and substandard living quarters. And lined up in front of the homes, alongside the families that inhabit them, is all of the stuff they own. Every single television, shoe lace, couch, and clock. Some families are so surrounded by treadmills, extensive wardrobes, furniture, and video games that you can barely detect the human beings amidst all the material goods. Other families pose amidst meager resources: a mixing bowl, a blanket, a comb, a single pair of men’s shoes that are worn threadbare. The book doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Some people have far too much stuff, and some people don’t have enough. To actually see a visual illustration of this fact is humbling, though.

Most Americans, even the ones that are well below the US poverty line, have way more material goods than foreign households. Some folks see this as a point of pride—that one of the bonuses of living in the United States of America is the entitlement to have a television in every room of the house. I have a great deal of ambivalence about stuff, though. I am thankful for my sewing machine and my electric guitar. But the fact that I have these items and more when other people are struggling to get by troubles me. Yet even as the Holy Spirit stirs my conscience, the commercials for the new IPod music player stir my greed.

I don’t have an answer for the disparity that separates the haves from the have-nots. I do try to pay attention to the struggle, to ask myself if I really need something, and to consider how my decisions affect all the peoples of the world. I try to support efforts to make trade fair, and to avoid companies that have a bad track record of human rights abuses.

Having stuff isn’t a sin, but valuing our material comforts more than we value our neighbors is clearly a problem. I may never have met the Vietnamese workers who stitched together the shirt I wore while I wrote this paragraph, but I am still challenged to match God’s compassion and love for them.

In the gospel lesson today, Jesus confers a mission to the twelve faithful Disciples. They are to go out into the villages fortified by an authority over unclean spirits. They are to bring the good news of the amazing deeds of God by bringing divine gifts of wholeness and liberation to the villagers. The people will no longer be under the cruel dominion of demons; they will be free. No longer will the ravages of illness diminish their bodies and perplex their minds. Through the power of Jesus Christ, God will cleanse humankind of pain, of sin, of isolation.

Let’s see. We’d need lots of stuff to make that happen, right? We’d need medical supplies, and plenty of food to last a fortnight, and bug spray… oh, and better get an oil check before head out. Let’s be practical, folks. Successful ministry takes materials.

Only that’s not what Jesus is saying in this gospel. The Disciples are sent off little more than the clothes on their back. The list of prohibited items is longer than the list of what’s permitted. No bread, no bag, no money, not even an extra tunic. All they get is a staff and a pair of sandals. And let’s be clear, the staff that Jesus is talking about is a walking stick, not a paid staff of assistants. This is one of those passages of the Bible that very, very few contemporary Christians apply literally to their own lives. We know what we need to get the word out, and it includes more than a pair of shoes and a cane. And yet this is how Jesus sends his Disciples out to spread the liberating and healing power of God.

The Disciples may have been sent out all but empty handed, but they did have the one accessory that trumps any tool or object for ministry. They had each other. They were not sent out to face the demons alone. They were not expected to knock on the doors of potentially inhospitable visitors without a friend to share the brunt of the rejection. They were paired off like the animals in Noah’s ark, bereft of physical comfort and stripped of material resources, but they had the one thing that is absolutely necessary to become a witness for the gospel: a relationship.

This passage is about faith. The Disciples had to trust Jesus. They had to believe in the authority he had given them to spread the seed of the kingdom, and they had to trust that they would be given all that they needed to respond to the mission Jesus had given them. But this scripture is also a sharp reminder that what matters in ministry is people.

Jesus’ entire life and ministry demonstrates the significance of his relationships with his sisters and brothers. When he was ready to begin proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom, the first item on his agenda was to gather a group of Disciples to help bear the burden of his mission. No matter that the men in his inner circle were constantly misunderstanding the nature of Christ and his message. No matter that they occasionally succumbed to the all-too human tendency to jostle for power and prestige within the movement. The men and women Jesus called into the life of Discipleship were his companions, his confidants, his friends.

The good news here is that we have what we need to take part in God’s reconciling, liberating, and healing work. We have each other. We are a small congregation, but so were the twosomes that scattered throughout the hillsides at Jesus’ bidding. We are Christians in a time when it is standard for congregations to own property that accommodates worship, fellowship, and educational events.

The inventory of SBCC includes all sorts of helpful tools to enable us to do meaningful ministry. We have a collection of wheel chairs, just in case one of our members or friends needs assistance. We have a beautiful pipe organ that creates deep winds of sound to accompany our praises. But all these things are merely taking up space without the children of God that gather here to discern and respond to our Father’s will. The grill in the parking lot shed is useless until the early morning crew comes to fire it up for the pancake breakfast.

Many of our sisters and brothers throughout the world respond to God’s call on their lives in a context of poverty and hunger. They are challenged to trust God and take part in the unfolding of his Kingdom even though they live on less than a dollar a day. Our challenge is different; we live in a culture that is rich in material goods and often all too poor in love. We must learn to trust God despite all the things that distract our attention from his Holy Kingdom.

Our challenge is to rid ourselves from the belief that the stuff is what gives us joy and spreads the gospel song, and to resist the temptation to let material goods destroy our relationships and obscure the will of God from our hearts. How many families, how many congregations, have been torn apart by arguments over objects? I once heard a story about a congregation that ultimately split over the matter of a painting—whether or not it should be in the sanctuary or the fellowship hall.

Nothing is as valuable as the bond of communion between one another and with our Creator, yet people become estranged every day over things.

Jesus sent his Disciples out with everything they needed: a good pair of walking shoes and a friend. Their companions for the gospel journey are not simply “human resources,” that strange phrase that turns men and women into commodities. As companions they offered one another accountability, trust, encouragement, relief, the “stuff” of friendship that cannot be purchased at the market.

Jesus still sends his Disciples out with everything we need. The fact that each of us here has been called into this place, to be a part of this community of faith, is the work of God’s hand. Here, we are blessed with sisters and brothers in Christ. As a congregation we have a covenant to care for one another – and we can trust that our care will be returned. And as a congregation, we also have a covenant with God to take the gifts we receive in this place and transform them into gifts for the world. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to invite people into relationship—relationship with the people of this congregation, and relationship with our Redeemer.

Jesus wants us out in the world, hand in hand, bringing the good news from our doorstep to the ends of the earth. We can be grateful for our creature comforts, but we must remember, again and again, that Spirit and friendship and faith are what gladden our hearts and multiply the holy harvest. May it be so.


Sunday, June 18th

This week the new Poet Laureate of the United States was chosen, and so on my drive home on Wednesday, the NPR afternoon show broke away from talk of Guantanamo Bay and the ongoing violence in Iraq to interview the new national poet, Stephen Dunn.

As Dunn read a few poems for the radio audience, I marveled at how deeply poets seem to pay attention to the world around them. They see past the surface of things. You might look at chestnut and see just that—a chestnut. But a poet has the ability to see a poem in that chestnut, to paint a whole world within the space of that little nut.

One of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, made a practice of writing odes to ordinary things. He composed odes to artichokes and onions, tomatoes and books. He even wrote an ode to laziness— one of my favorite poems to read on my day off. One of his most beautiful poems glorified the lowly chestnut. He mused, “Out of the bristling foliage you fell complete: polished wood, glistening mahogany, perfect as a violin that has just been born in the treetops and falls offering the gifts locked inside it, its hidden sweetness, finished in secret among birds and leaves… oval instrument that holds in its structure unblemished delight and edible rose.” Through metaphor and imagination, Neruda turned a chestnut into a violin—and a poem. Instead of tossing the fallen chestnut aside, he paid attention and discovered its amazing potential.

A chestnut transformed into a poem, a mustard seed transfigured into a shrub large enough to host a flock of birds. The scripture today is about the Kingdom of God. In true form, Jesus doesn’t direct us to consider the big and bombastic; he presses our attention to the tiny and humble. Seeds are small, but not insignificant. Within a seed a whole life is contained, and what’s more, generations of life to come. Jesus calls out the sacred potential of a seed, finding within it a kingdom’s worth of possibility.

Jesus encountered all kinds of low-life characters during his public ministry. Despite the fact that the church has had two millennia to get used to the idea, the church is still shocked and offended by the boundary-breaking behavior of our Lord and Savior.

He hung out with the dregs of society. He broke bread with tax collectors and conversed with promiscuous women—and probably a few promiscuous men, too, though the scriptures don’t point out that particular sin among the menfolk of the bible.

Jesus didn’t hang out with those people because he pitied them. He didn’t call out their sinfulness and run back to the safety of the respectable Pharisees. He spent time with them, delighting in their unique company. Jesus reached out to ordinary, broken people because he saw beyond their sinfulness, beyond their role as outcasts and outlaws. He perceived their potential, the faithful men and women they could become when they experienced the liberating power of his Heavenly Father.

He looked at roughed up fishermen and recognized them as Disciples. He encountered women of ill repute and trusted that the Holy Spirit would transform them into faithful bearers of the good news.

And so the Kingdom of God grows. God’s creative force coaxes forests teeming with life out of brittle seeds, and God’s redeeming love releases men and women from sin, and recasts them as co-builders of his emerging realm of peace and justice. When we keep our eyes open for the seeds of the Kingdom, the ridiculously small beginnings to the great things our God will accomplish are everywhere, just waiting to be nurtured by the breath of the Holy Spirit and tended by the acts of the faithful.

One sign of the Kingdom I have become acquainted with over the last few years is called the One Campaign. One is a small number, an insignificant number. If you found a penny on the ground, you may or may not decide its worth stooping down to add one cent to your piggy bank. But the One Campaign proclaims that one is as mighty as a mustard seed. The organization is lobbying the governments of the richest nations of the world to commit to setting aside one percent of their budgets to accomplish their Kingdom-sized goal: to make poverty history. The One Declaration for the United States campaign is

The hopeful tone of this declaration moves me. One of the last classes I took in school was about the contemporary crisis of poverty. Though one of the instructors was a theologian, I was the only seminarian on the class roster. My classmates were students of politics, psychology, and education. Each week, we gathered to address another dimension of the global poverty crisis. And even though there were so many brilliant people in the room, the crisis seemed to become more and more unsolvable. Our idealistic hope that somehow our thoughtful consideration of poverty would have an impact on the world deflated. We had lost all sense that a mustard seed can be cultivated into the greatest of all shrubs.

By focusing on the simple work of planting seeds that can grow into a global movement genuinely capable of making a difference, the One Campaign guards against hopelessness. Instead, the campaign has a humble confidence that one person, one voice, one vote, and one percent can make poverty history. The Kingdom of God is something like that.

If we are going to trust that seeds can become great trees, that sinners can become faithful saints, that one voice make a difference, well, we have to have a whole lot of hope. Optimism, particularly false optimism, will not help us. False optimism cannot face the fact that the seed is small. The false optimist pretends that the seed is already a tree, that sin isn’t really all that bad, that signing a declaration that calls for the eradication of poverty means that the work is done.

What we need is hope, the hard-earned trust that God will take our small and humble offerings and transform them into pillars of his Kingdom. Hope isn’t about denying the truth. Hope recognizes the weakness of the seed. Hope admits that there is work to be done—soil to till, tender roots to protect. But hope gratefully acknowledges that God is at work, guiding, redeeming, and cajoling his beloved Creation into a place that is fit for the Prince of Peace.

Mother Theresa began her orphanage in Calcutta with a parable vision. She told her superiors, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.”

Her superiors told her, “You can’t build an orphanage with three pennies… with three pennies you can’t do anything.

“I know.” She said. “But with God and three pennies I can do anything.”


Sunday, June 11

Isaiah 6:1-8

Why does it matter if you go to church? There are plenty of other things you could do on Sunday mornings. I can tell you what I’d be doing if I wasn’t here. I’d sleep until at least nine o’clock, take Deacon on an extra-long walk, brew a perfect pot of coffee, and curl up on the couch with the Sunday Los Angeles Times. At eleven, I’d listen to This American Life, my favorite radio show.

That version of a lazy Sunday morning sounds delightful. And I’m sure many of you can conjure up what you could be doing if you weren’t here. Maybe you’d play golf, or walk on the beach, go out for a nice long breakfast with friends. Maybe you’d do the same things you do every day, and Sunday would come and go without even the slightest sense of Sabbath.

But you didn’t sleep in or play bridge or make a run to the grocery store. You woke up today and did what you needed to do to be present with this congregation. You chose to spend an hour or so in this sacred space, worshipping God. Perhaps you are here out of habit. That’s okay— we all know how powerful bad habits are—and good habits have just as profound effect on our lives. Perhaps you woke up this morning and felt like you absolutely had to go to church, that the decision to gather with other Christians to hear the words of the gospel and to join in the sacrament of communion was literally a matter of life or death. One way or another, God called you here.

It matters that you are here, and not somewhere else. Because those other things we could be doing might be fun or relaxing, might help us check a few more items off our to-do lists, but they do not have the power to change our hearts and transform our minds.

You can certainly experience the presence of Christ on the beach or in the grocery store. But the intentional time we set aside on the Lord’s Day to gather as the Body of Christ, worshipping the Living God with our brothers and sisters, forms and transforms us. Here, as we offer sacrifices of praise and offering, as we greet one another with the Passing of Christ’s peace, as we pray with reverence and sing with joy, we are in the presence of God. And if we learn one thing from the Old and New Testaments alike, it’s that you cannot encounter the Triune God without being changed.

Our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures tells us the story of Isaiah’s call to the difficult life of a prophet. Call stories come in many stripes. Moses was tending flocks, Mary was biding her time awaiting her marriage to a man named Joseph. But Isaiah encounters God and receives his life-altering call in the context of a divine worship service. He describes his experience in sharp detail. The hem of the Lord’s cloak fills the temple. Seraphs attend him, as in a heavenly court. They sing praises, proclaiming that God is Holy, Holy, Holy. Their worship cannot be contained. It is such a profound expression of praise the house fills with smoke.

Isaiah is encountering the full glory of God, a glory that we can hardly imagine, for even the most beautiful sights reveal only a sliver of God’s grace, a fraction of God’s love. His reaction to the experience is riveting. Seeing the Lord on his throne, and witnessing the jubilant worship of the angels, stirs something in Isaiah. By coming face to face with God’s holiness, Isaiah is overcome with his own brokenness. He recognizes the sinfulness of his people. He recognizes his own sinfulness. He doesn’t need anyone to call out his wrongs; the dark corners of his soul are simply reeling in the light of God’s glory.

Isaiah is so beleaguered by guilt that he does not even begin to ask for pardon. And so what happens next comes as a surprise. A Seraph takes a hot coal and presses it against Isaiah’s mouth, burning his lips but also imparting the gift of forgiveness upon him. Isaiah’s sin and guilt are taken away. He is cleansed, saved from the paralyzing effect of his transgressions.

This passage reveals something about the relationship between worship and guilt, the relationship between encountering the awesome presence of God and sin. There is a relationship. William Willimon, one of the great modern preachers, puts it this way: this scripture “demonstrates that sin is a byproduct of our being confronted by God.” He points out that “When we say “sin” we’re not talking about the result of natural human anxiety about the limits of being human, or occasional foibles and slip-ups. We are saying that face-to-face with the awesome righteousness of God, the holiness of Jesus, we fall to our knees. We have our noses rubbed in the great gap between who we are and who God is.”

Isaiah witnessed the glory of the Lord. He heard the excruciating truth that God is Holy, Holy, Holy. He could have responded with pride, arguing that he was just fine, that his lips were spotless and that his people had simply made some mistakes. But instead felt lost. He acknowledged his guilt, recognized his sin. And with the rustle of a Seraph’s wings, his shame was cast out.

I wonder how many people experience a rush of guilt and sense of sinfulness when they enter the Lord’s house. Even without the thrill of smoke and Seraphs, entering a sanctuary set aside for worshipping God can be frighteningly powerful. And that strong reaction, sometimes mixed in with a flood of grief and loneliness, confuses people. They don’t like the feeling, and can’t figure out why they have it. And while the church has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for laying guilt trips on the faithful, I think the source of that powerful reaction goes far above and beyond the institutional church. Like Isaiah, when we face the Holiness of God, we are challenged to a deeper level of honesty about who we are. We are exposed. But God does not desire to reveal our brokenness so that we can sink into shame. Isaiah didn’t even have to ask to receive the gift of forgiveness. Isaiah may have stumbled out of awe for God’s great mercy, but that mercy also became the source of his redemption.

Isaiah met God in worship, and the experience changed him. When God asked that daring question—“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us,” Isaiah was ready to respond to the call. “Here am I, send me!” This man who one moment had proclaimed himself unworthy of seeing the King had been rescued from shame and transformed into a willing servant.

Anne Lamott, the author of Traveling Mercies, the book that some of us will be reading this summer, writes about her winding journey back to the heart of God. She recalls that she was first drawn into the sanctuary of her home church by the music. She would hear those songs of praise and need to be present to hear them. But she would always leave before the sermon. She kept the community at an arms length, and continued to privately struggle with the demons of addiction. But as time went on, God continued to work on her, even in the short snags of time she would hover in the back of the sanctuary.

Pretty soon she was experiencing the draw to stay, to let herself be known by the fellow worshippers, and to open herself up to the amazing presence of God. She is now a servant of Christ, ministering through humor and honesty to both her beloved congregation and to the countless people who have read her books. Her life is marked by grace.

Showing up isn’t everything. As the bumper sticker says, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in the garage makes you an automobile. But showing up is something. Making that decision to be here gives God the opportunity to shape you through the rhythms of worship.

God has a purpose for all of our lives. More than anything, God wants us to respond to his call with the courageous spirit of Isaiah—“Here I am Lord.” God wants us to witness his glory and be delivered from our shame. God wants us to be his children so much that he sent his Son Jesus to be our brother and our redeemer. God cares about us so deeply that he continues to send his Holy Spirit to bear witness with our spirits that we are sons and daughters of God.

Today, after worship, we will gather in the Church lounge for a potluck. The cause for our shared meal is simple—to celebrate our new members. Church membership is a funny concept. It isn’t part of the New Testament, but it is nevertheless an important concept for the contemporary church. To be a member of a congregation is to be in covenant, to be in relationship. By placing membership in this congregation, we commit to supporting the ministries of this church with our time, our energy, our gifts. But we also commit to gathering for worship, hopefully more often than not. We decide that we will join our voices with those of the Christians in this place to sing praises of our God. We link our lives up with the lives of the brethren gathered here, through prayer, through fellowship. And together, we approach the throne of the Lord of Hosts. Together, we open ourselves to the ways God is moving in our lives, offering us the mercy of forgiveness and calling us into deeper discipleship. Strengthened by our community, we can say boldly: Here we are, Lord. Send us out to do your work.”