Sunday, October 14, 2012

Where Do Our Blessings Come From? Look Around.

[Sermon from Oct. 14, 2012]
So welcome to week 2 of our stewardship season.  Last Sunday, we began a four-week sermon series on “Choosing to Say, ‘Thank You.’”  The question we were exploring last week was, “What am I thankful for?”; and to me, at least, the answer to that question is that I’m most thankful for the gift of relationships.  So today, as we continue with this series, the question is, “Where do my blessings come from?”  And here’s the answer:  They come from God.  There you go – the shortest sermon of all time.
Well, maybe not.   There’s a bit more to it than that.  I mean, we all know our blessings come from God.  But how does that work, exactly?  On one level, it’s the simple truth we recognize every time we say grace before dinner or say the Lord’s Prayer: that God is the source of our daily bread – and our houses, and cars, and clothing, and on and on.  But when it comes to our deepest blessings, the blessings that make our lives meaningful – blessings of love and laughter, care and compassion – God has designed a particularly ingenious system for sharing those blessings.  It’s all around you.  In fact, it is you.  God uses us, the people of this church, as instruments for blessing one another and those around us.  In fact, that’s really what the Church is all about.  It isn’t God’s only way of blessing the world, but I do think that’s why we’re here.
So it’s ironic that, since we gathered here last week, one of those news stories has come out that puts Christianity on the front pages for a day, at least.  According to a well-respected research group, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we’ve reached a watershed moment:  Protestant Christians are no longer a majority of our population.  This is the first time that’s ever been the case.
And the primary reason why?  It’s not that our Roman Catholic neighbors are outdoing the Protestants.  It’s because of the growing segment of the population that chooses to opt out of the religious marketplace.  Today, 20 percent of the population chooses “None” as their religious affiliation, an increase of five points in just the past five years.  Some of the folks in that 20 percent are avowed atheists.  But many of them are part of a growing segment of the population, the SBNRs – “spiritual but not religious.”  They are the topic of many a continuing-education event for clergy these days, because the SBNR option is the Church’s primary competition.  The SBNRs do see themselves as people of faith – at least their own individualized, cobbled-together faith.  But they have no use for religion, which they find gets in the way of being “spiritual.” (
Should we take this as an indictment of the Church?  Yes, absolutely.  There are many other social factors at work, too, but – Christian religious institutions have spent way too much time and energy being religious institutions, rather than the Body of Christ on a mission to reveal the kingdom of God.  We’ve focused on internal squabbles and often preached a Gospel of self-perpetuation.  It’s not a healthy pattern.  The more time we spend focused on ourselves, the less time we spend on blessing people nearby and far away. 
I think there’s a lesson for us in our Gospel reading today about this call not to be an institution but to be the primary delivery system for God’s blessings.  It’s the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).  Jesus tells him he needs to follow the Law of Moses – no great surprise there – which the man says he does … religiously even.  But Jesus sees that something else is getting in the way.  This man is trying to secure what’s coming to him, both in this life and the next.  He’s probably sincere in following the rules, but what he’s trying to do is to solidify his spiritual position just as he’s built up his worldly holdings – trying to put the pieces in place in his spiritual portfolio so he can get the same success in the next life as he’s had in this one.  The malady this man suffers from is consumption – being consumed with what he has rather than who he is, and consumed with getting to eternal life rather than being in eternal life.
We’re also at risk for consumption.  That’s not a surprise to any of you.  You don’t have to watch TV or surf the web very long to notice what our culture asks of us.  Buy; possess; consume; repeat.  By count of the messages we receive, that’s clearly our primary function in the culture’s eyes.  Preachers have been railing against it for years, with not a lot to show for the effort.  But Jesus didn’t show a lot of success along those lines, either.  After all, the rich man in the Gospel reading “went away grieving,” back to his “many possessions,” rather than following Jesus to reveal the kingdom of God (Mark 10:22). 
It’s a matter of whether we put our focus on the things we have or on the relationships we have.  Deep down, at our core, each one of us is a child of God designed for relationship with other children of God.  Even in this individualized culture, we’re still wired for relationship.  It’s where we find our greatest blessings, as I said last week, and where we find our spiritual healing.  When Jesus diagnoses the rich man with consumption, being consumed by the things he has, the prescription is to get rid of his possessions – but not because possessions are inherently bad.  They’re not.  They’re blessings from God.  Instead, the prescription is to sell them and give the money “to the poor” (Mark 10:21) – which, to me, implies the need to connect with people the rich man would have otherwise never known, and to bring them God’s blessing.
For churches, we face the same kind of choice between focusing on the institution we have or focusing on relationships yet to be made.  If we want to turn around that trend toward SBNR and “None” being the fastest-growing religious categories, then our choice has to be building relationships.  No matter the beauty of our buildings, or the acumen of our theology, or the richness of our tradition – where the rubber meets the road is where Jesus is leading the disciples in today’s Gospel:  to the blessings of community.  Those who turn away from their consumption, and turn toward relationship instead, will find their blessings multiplied by a “hundredfold,” Jesus says – “now in this age … and in the age to come” (Mark 10:30).
At our best, that’s what we experience right here in this parish, our spiritual and relational home.  In fact, you may be surprised to find out just how much blessing happens through the life of the people of this church, week in and week out.  I took a minute, and looked at the parish calendar, and started counting.  In the week that’s just passed, if you were here all day and all evening long, you would have encountered 30 different gatherings and meetings – everything from Intercessory Prayer to Youth Group to choirs to Cancer Support to 10 different adult learning opportunities.  And in the week ahead, we’ll see 33 more gatherings and meetings among people of this church.  If you estimate eight people at each of those gatherings – and that would be a conservative average – that’s about 250 times someone walks into this building each week for something other than worship.  Across the year, that’s 13,000 times the doors open for a moment of blessing.
And that doesn’t even count the funerals and the weddings.  It doesn’t count the hundreds of pastoral appointments and conversations Mtr. Anne and I have – and even those are only the tip of the iceberg when you consider all the caring conversations taking place among the people of this church every week.  It doesn’t count the fellowship of coffee hour or a greeeting from the ladies in the gift shop.  It’s no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of moments of blessing happen in this church, and among its people, every year.
This is the secret of Christianity’s endurance, the reason for our persistent presence in the world after 2,000 years, despite our own failings and the forces working against us.  Our blessings come from God – but just as important, our blessings come from God through each one of us.  The polls may show that we’re slipping, but nonetheless you are part of a mighty force – a holy company of saints making the blessings of God real and concrete, incarnating Christ’s love, and opening the door to the reality of eternal life happening right now. 
So rather than seeing yourself as part of an institution, be part of the movement Jesus is leading.  Be part of the life of the body of Christ here.  Pledge yourself to support it, in time and talent and treasure.  Say “thank you” for the blessings God is pouring out on you, and let them flow through you to bless people nearby and far away. 
That’s not just how the institution of St. Andrew’s will thrive in its second century, although that’s true.  It’s also our witness to the SBNRs we know.  The next time someone says to you, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” you can say to them, “I’m spiritual, too.  But, you know, you get a lot more out of being spiritual together.” 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What Am I Thankful For?

Sermon from Oct. 7, 2012
Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 1:1-4,2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Welcome to the 2012 stewardship season!  What, no applause?  Now, this may not be a season you look forward to quite as much as, say, football season or the Christmas season, and that’s understandable.  For many of us, “stewardship” is the Church’s code language for, “Give us money.”  Coming to church in the fall can feel like turning on NPR during the pledge drive – you wait for the pitch to end so you can get back to regular programming. 
Even though we’re officially kicking off our pledge campaign today, a number of you have beaten us to the punch.  At this point, we’ve already received 70 pledges for 2013, including seven new ones.  You’ll hear more from one of our Stewardship chairs, Glenn Crawford, in just a few minutes. 
So yes, there’s certainly a financial component to stewardship; but it doesn’t mean, “Give us money.”  And I hope this year’s stewardship season makes that point loud and clear.  For example:  The pledge card this year does ask for a financial pledge, but it also asks for a pledge of time and talent, because your bank account isn’t the measure of your life.  And the pledge card is about more than pledging, too.  It includes a bookmark with Scripture verses for you to read and pray over each day in order to flesh out the deeper reality of stewardship: that our lives are gifts from God that bless us when we pass them along.  That’s why the theme for this year is choosing to say “thank you” for the love that God showers on us.
But that begs the question, what exactly do I have to be thankful for?  I mean, we all know we’re supposed to be thankful; but frankly, there’s a lot that’s wrong these days.  We’re anxious about the economy, with many people still out of work or uncertain about their jobs.  We’re anxious about our social institutions like marriage and family, with “long-term relationships” now measured in a few years rather than lifetimes.  We’re anxious about our nation’s politics and the polarization that keeps us from governing ourselves responsibly.  We’re anxious about the future, fearing that our children’s lives will be harder than ours have been. 
So there’s plenty for us to worry about.  And yet, this pledge card reads, “Choose to say, ‘Thank You.’”  Thank you for what? 
For me, at least, our readings today point to an answer:  What we have to be most thankful for is the gift of relationships.
The reading from Genesis begins the story.  After six days of creation, even as God has spun the majesty of the heavens and the earth out of nothing, God realizes the work isn’t quite done.  All the “stuff” is right – oceans and forests teeming with life; food free for the taking; the human being serving as God’s deputy, naming the animals and caring for creation.  But the human being is not yet complete.  He yearns for something: mutual relationship with someone who makes him whole.  God sees it and makes for him not another thing to manage but a partner to complete him.  The human being now has “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (2:23), and the two can become the “one flesh” together they each long to be (2:24).  The gift of relationship begins there in the Garden and makes creation perfect.  And every time God calls us into the fullness of relationship with another human being, every time we make ourselves vulnerable and give ourselves to another, every time love happens and endures – that perfection of creation blossoms once again.  That’s quite a gift to be thankful for.
And in the reading from Hebrews, we hear what holy relationships look like:  They look like the relationships modeled by Jesus, the one sent not simply to speak for God but to show us “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3).  This is why Christianity is so shocking, even 2,000 years later – because the exact imprint of God’s very being looks like giving yourself up for those you love.  In fact, God loves us at the ultimate cost, experiencing human death in order to defeat it and let us live forever.  In Jesus, God gives us a relationship of love that never dies.  That’s quite a gift to be thankful for.
And then there’s the Gospel reading, where we hear words we may find harsh, even judgmental.  When it comes to divorce, Jesus is clearly not a fan.  But to me, at least, the point here isn’t simply “divorce is bad,” and it certainly isn’t that divorced people are bad.  The point I hear Jesus making is about love and control.  When we can’t get what we want, sometimes we choose control over mutual self-giving.  But the gift of deep relationship comes when both parties give up trying to control it, when we empty ourselves of power over the relationship. 
I think that’s why Jesus’ comments about divorce are followed, oddly, by the story of little children coming to him.  The kids aren’t seeking anything but love.  The disciples try to keep them away from Jesus because children were the lowest of the low in Ancient Near Eastern culture, and no respectable rabbi would want to get his hands dirty with them (literally).  But Jesus sees the kids’ desire to be with him as the contrast to the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” in justifying divorce.  The powerless kids don’t come into the relationship with any need for control.  They’re just hoping to be loved.  And, Jesus says, that’s the kind of relationship God gives to us – the intimate, freely given love of a parent for a child.  That’s quite a gift to be thankful for.
But it’s hard to live in a state of thankfulness, remembering God’s blessings in anxiety and stress.  Frankly, I’m not always as grateful for my life as I know I’m supposed to be.  In this job, there are times when counting my blessings isn’t exactly the first thing on my mind.  I had one of those times a few weeks ago, when Mtr. Anne was gone on vacation.  We were getting ready for the fall program, and juggling schedules for restoration work on the building, and developing commission mandates, and planning for next year’s budget, and working on the pledge campaign.  I had a wedding to prepare for, and people in the hospital, and a couple of funerals to do.  And in the midst of all that, a parishioner whom I’d never met, a member in name only, was making her way into the last stages of her life.  Honestly, it just felt like one more thing I had to attend to.  But as it turns out, I was truly blessed to be able to visit her in her last weeks. 
On the first visit, I sat with her in her beautiful living room and got to hear about her life – her joys, her struggles with some relationships, her fight with cancer, and her wishes for her funeral.  We talked about how surprising it is that healing can come from situations like hers, both in terms of healing present relationships and in terms of the ultimate healing – God’s love in eternal life. 
Going over to her house for a second visit, I had more limited expectations.  She had taken a turn and wasn’t able to communicate; family and friends were preparing for the end.  I brought my oil stock and expected a quick visit – anointing and prayers, then on my way.  I rang the doorbell, came in, and found her sitting on the couch, dressed to receive guests, with her hair combed and wearing makeup, and smoking a cigarette.  I was dumbfounded and said something really caring like, “What are you doing, sitting there on the couch?”  She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, I’m smoking a cigarette.”  I came and sat with her, and we talked about the turn for the better she’d taken that morning.  Then she asked, “Did you bring Communion?”; and I said, “No, I didn’t think you’d be up for a meal.  But have you got a cracker and some wine?”  So she got up, went into the kitchen, and came back with the necessary elements for a complete celebration of Holy Eucharist: a cracker on a small clay plate, a bottle of wine, and a Dixie cup.  We sat there together and celebrated the Eucharist, making her coffee table God’s altar, and transforming a cracker and paper cup of wine into the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.  
On my third visit, she really was at the end of this life.  Her eyes were closed; she couldn’t speak; and I didn’t know what she might be able to hear.  But I came to her bedside and sat with her, praising her for finishing up some letters to significant people in her life.  I got out my oil for anointing the sick, inscribed a cross on her forehead, and prayed that she would soon know God’s ultimate healing – that God would usher her gently from this side of eternal life and bring her joyfully to other side.  I sat with her a few minutes, holding her hand.  Finally, I looked at her and said, “Have a good trip.”
In the car, driving back to church, I received a call from the family.  She had died minutes after I left.  From the family’s perspective, she had heard whatever it was that she needed to hear in order to let go and make her journey home.  Her breathing had changed; she’d become peaceful; and she’d entered into the fullness of eternal life, coming into her Father’s loving embrace.
What am I thankful for?  I’m thankful for the gift of holy relationships. With my family, with my friends, with you whom I see week in and week out, and with people I never expected – in all those holy relationships – God gives me windows into the kingdom of heaven, windows into eternal life begun in the here and now.  That is quite a gift.  And for that gift, I choose to say, “Thank you,” and pass it along.