Monday, September 24, 2012

Sermon for September 23, 2012

Text: James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

My favorite part of the gospel reading for this week is when Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what they were talking about as they walked to Capernaum—and the disciples are silent.  They were arguing over who among them is the greatest, and when Jesus confronts them they immediately clam up. 

This is human nature.  I like this story because I can relate to it as a parent.  I know when my kids are getting in trouble because they're quiet for too long.  If I can hear them, I don’t worry.  But if they’re too quiet I immediately start searching for them.  Children instinctively know— at a very early age—to be quiet when they're doing something that will get them in trouble.  We adults do it too.  Isn’t it the worst feeling when someone calls you out on something, and you have no idea what to say?  When you feel shrunk into a corner, exposed, and you know your silence is only giving you away?  When we know we are doing something wrong, silence becomes our protective shield and our crutch.

The disciples have been following Jesus, watching him heal, teach, and even be transfigured.  What do they talk about as they walk down the road soon after witnessing Jesus heal a boy with a demon?  What do they discuss immediately after Jesus tells them for the second time that he will be killed and, after three days, raised to new life—news that will change the course of history?  They argue over who among them is the greatest.  If the people who followed Jesus—who lived, walked, and did ministry with him— couldn’t escape selfish ambition, how much harder it must be for us!

Their silence speaks volumes. The disciples are silent two times in our gospel reading for today.  The first time is after Jesus reveals his near future full of suffering.  They’re afraid to ask him questions.  The second time they’re silent is when Jesus catches them arguing.  Might this be a lesson to us?  In both instances the disciples are too proud, too afraid to look stupid, too scared to speak, and so they say nothing.  They can’t admit their vulnerability.

Ambition is ingrained in our culture.  We reward it.  I’m reminded of this every time I watch a competition reality show on TV.  I’m always amazed at the contestants trying out for a singing competition—an area so competitive that they have a sliver of a chance of becoming famous, even if they win.  They are so dead set on this being their only chance in life.  They are convinced that winning this competition and receiving fame will turn their lives around, even though we know for a fact that fame doesn’t make life any easier or more fulfilling.  I think about ambition as we look forward to watching the Emmys tonight—an over-the-top celebration of recognition and reward.  Many of us are ambitious in our own ways.  We want to be the best at our profession, the best parent, and the best at whatever hobby we choose.  We use ambition to cover up our insecurities and fears.

Today’s text from James speaks directly to our need for ambition (from The Message):
“Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.”

We can insert any ambitious need into this text and it still works:
Boasting that we are smart isn’t smart.  Twisting the truth to make it sound like we’re successful isn’t success.  Boasting like we have tons of friends isn’t friendly.  Twisting the truth to make it sound like we have everything together isn’t having everything together.

We could even take it further:  Boasting that we are a good Christians isn’t being good Christians.  Twisting the truth to make it sound like we’re compassionate isn’t compassionate.

James and Jesus call us out on our need to succeed, to compete, and to impress.  Just like the disciples, we grow silent when we have to admit our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.  We use silence as a way to cover up what we don’t want others to know.

Thankfully, Jesus and James lead us down a new path.  Jesus completely refocuses the disciples by bringing a child into their midst. Here, he says, this child—the lowest of the low, the most vulnerable, least successful, least knowledgeable person in our culture, is who you need to welcome and honor. And just like that he turns everything on its head.  The argument about who is the greatest ceases to matter, and the disciples are called to live a new way.

James says:
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

Wisdom is full of gentleness, understanding and mercy that treats all people with dignity and honor. This opens up a whole new way of living for us. We’re released from this need to be better than others.  We are no longer trapped in the vicious cycle of comparing ourselves to those around us.  We are free to share our insecurities, vulnerabilities, and mistakes—and to find life and power in doing so!

Christ doesn’t look for who is the best or the greatest.  Christ shows us that true power comes from vulnerability.  He made himself vulnerable on the cross, to the point of death, to bring about a new kingdom in this world—one we are living out right now.  This new kingdom that isn’t afraid of vulnerability or looking stupid or failing.  This kingdom encourages honesty, truth and new identity in Christ.  It refocuses us and helps us look outside ourselves to the needs around us.  We’re called not to be the best, but to love.

If you are sitting here today thinking, “I’m not successful.  I’m not smart enough.  I’m not compassionate enough.  I’m not wise enough.  Look at those around me!  How will I ever compare?” Welcome to the club! The church has a new word for you.  You are valued because God loves you as God’s child.  We are precious in God’s sight because of who we are—completely, sins and all.  We look to others with the same compassion, and we find joy in humbleness.  As James says, “Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.”


Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I’m prone to restlessness.  It often lurks in the back corners of my mind, interrupting me throughout the day.  My years in school, complete with multiple moves over a ten-year period, trained me to enjoy transition.  Without the periodic anxiety and thrill of moving, I get restless, especially in the fall as I watch others go back to school and jump into new beginnings.  It’s a bit of my old life rearing its head to nip my feet as I again drive the same roads between church and home.

So I try to appease it.  I plan fun vacations and weekend getaways to new places.  I take up new hobbies (this summer it was riding my new bike).  I create a stack of new books to read.  I look to meet new people.  I move the furniture in my house.  I purge belongings.  I drive a new route between church and home.

All of these activities are fine and healthy.  In the past, they’ve worked well for me.  But now I’m approaching four years at the same place with no move in sight—the longest amount of time I’ve stayed still since I moved away from my parent’s house at 18.  I’ve watched staff and congregation members come and go.  And I’m still here.  And I’m not appeased.

I’m restless.

Let me say this:  I have no plans to move or change my job.  My husband and I are incredibly blessed to have calls near one another that we both enjoy.  We love our city.  Our son goes to a great school and we are so grateful for our daycare provider.  We are content, fortunate and thankful.

So why am I restless?

The restlessness haunts me.  Then this week I picked up Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor and re-read it.  I remembered him talking about his restless years—those six years (three years into his first call) he calls The Badland Years.  He became my pastor this week as I read his process of moving from restlessness to finding life.  And I realized something.

I’m in the middle of a refining fire.

Sometimes restlessness is a very good indicator of the need for change in one’s life.  But for me, it’s a sign of my need to grow, to reach a new spiritual maturity—to let go.  It’s easy to plan more vacations and to dream about the next move.  It’s much harder to settle into daily life—the same routines, annoyances, chores, and arguments day after day—and appreciate its rhythms.  For so many years I’ve missed my daily life because I’ve always been thinking about the next change.  Now I’m challenged to find contentment where I am.  I’m finding it difficult.

I feel the fire, the painful change, and the pruning of my soul.  Restlessness is a cruel tempter.  Adrenaline is quickly addictive.  Yet now I need to work on acceptance, patience, and trusting the Holy Spirit.  I want to simply be with people.  I need to embrace prayer and ritual.  It’s time to let the fire consume me, for out of its ashes will come new life.   

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lip Flap

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have politics on the brain.  It’s hard to keep myself away from the constant coverage of the big party conventions.  Yet politics is not my favorite pastime.  I’ve been turning MPR off because the unending political talk is exhausting.  I find politics boring, frustrating and inauthentic, so I’m not the best person to engage in political banter. 

I find politics to be talking for the sake of talking.  People who spend any time in conversation with me (or hear me preach) know I am succinct.  I don’t use more words than necessary.  I physically run away from small talk.  Roger Ebert recently wrote about a concept Gene Siskel introduced him to called Lip Flap--or talking without saying anything of use.  He describes its purpose as allowing “people to sneak up on the moment when they would sooner or later have to actually engage their minds.”  When I read this, I thought, “YES!” Someone finally gave words to the frustration I’ve felt for so long.

Politics is all Lip Flap.  It’s people talking to fill space, often with no point and no direction.  It’s also people talking without authenticity.  The debates are useless in my mind, because (on my worst days) I feel like I’m sitting and listening to discover which person is the more charming liar.  Oh yes, I know I sound like a cynic.  But this system makes me crazy.

I’m also a preacher.  I’m someone who spends my days and weeks crafting oratory from my very heart and being.  I stand and share my deepest values and beliefs with a group of people on a regular basis.  Although I’m relaxing more, I still ponder each word in my sermons as I put them on paper.  Every sentence counts.  It's easy for me to feel superior and put down politicians.

It’s painful to know our current political system is fractured and incredibly polarized.  It makes me feel hopeless, insignificant and sad.  It's even harder for me to admit I participate in the polarization by becoming cynical and hard-headed.  But as a citizen, I know I need to listen.  As a person of faith, my ears need to be open to find clues to what others around me are thinking and feeling.  My animal reaction to politics is to bury my head and wait until November is over—to only listen to people with whom I agree and keep the radio on the Top 40 station.  But I can’t.

Jesus engaged in political talk.  He listened to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, even though he didn’t agree with them.  Darn.

Our political system is also a reflection of our larger society.  We’re all becoming more fractured and polarized—even (not so shockingly) the church.  Peter Steinke, a nationally-respected scholar in church conflict for many years, has noticed this change within the church.  Over the years, he’s watched congregation members become more interested in being right than finding compromise.  People hold on more tightly to their ideas and opinions at the expense of the community.  This trend is everywhere.

The Christian Century reports that clergy in Tampa, FL and Charlotte, NC, the sites of the Republican and Democratic conventions, issued a statement called “The Common Witness.”  The statement “acknowledges the wide political division in the country, encourages those involved in the political process to argue respectfully and not use religion to garner votes, and invites prayers for peace.”

How easy it is to forget when we have no words to say due to anger, fear, frustration and sadness, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  I sigh for the hungry poor, the unemployed, the prisoner, and the vulnerable.  I sigh for the oppressed, the forgotten, the children, and the failing systems.  I sigh for a country more intent on being right than on finding a compromise.  I sigh for my own attitude.   

I pray our prayers make a difference.  And on my better days, I pray with thanksgiving for those who serve in the political arena.  I pray for patience and hope.